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Tag Archive | "ranger steve"

Slow start


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

Delays test our patience. Waiting challenges us to get outside in search of hidden treasures. We plant early flowering species like crocuses and daffodils to greet us with cheer before native species bloom. Dwarf daffodils are blooming though they have an inch of new snow covering. Tall daffodils are about to open. 

A few native species have bloomed and will shed accessory flower parts except for the fertilized ovary that contains the developing seed. Red and silver maples will litter the yard with expended red flower parts and soon will follow with seeds attached to a helicopter wing. Seeds will spiral though the air to germination sites and some will be picked up by us to use as whistles with kids or grandkids. Placing the flat seed wing between our tongue and mouth roof for blowing will make a loud whistle and is a traditional sign of spring. What kid would miss announcing spring with this whistle? It is as important as the town’s noon whistle but parents or friends must teach them how the whistle works. Do not miss experiencing spring excitement with children. 

Hazel nut flowers have already shed pollen and speckled alders are still in the process. 

At ground level trout lilies or adder’s tongues and spring beauties are among the first ephemerals to carpet the woods with yellow and pink. Emerging maroon pyramidal growth breaks ground with some already having expanded into leaves with trout-like spots. April’s fresh snow does not disturb them. A few spring beauties show tiny leaves and flower buds but they wait for warmer days to open blooms.

Birds that spent the winter elsewhere are making their comeback to neighborhoods. Eastern Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, and Red-winged Blackbirds are filling spaces that have been devoid of apparent life for too long. Their calls and songs give us hope that spring is really underway. 

Where are the butterflies? A few that overwinter as adults have come out on warm sunny days. Sun warmth penetrates cavities where Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, and a few other anglewings have been holed up for months. My first sighting of the year was a Mourning Cloak on March 28. That is later than I expected but not unusual. Two more were seen on the 70ºF day along with an Eastern Comma during the first week of April. 

The following day a Cabbage White actively searched the backyard for signs of life to suit its interests. That species does not overwinter as an adult. It spent the cold season in a chrysalis and emerged with fresh wings. Viceroy butterfly caterpillars overwintered as tiny 1/8-inch-long larva wrapped in a tiny willow leaf that it tied to the stem with silk. When leaf buds open the young viceroy will begin feeding on delicate soft leaves. 

With additional warm weather, large swallowtails will emerge from chrysalises to grace us with their presence when serviceberry shrubs display white flowers that provide nectar. The slow start of life’s spring activity is about to cease and a mad race to complete nature niche growing activity will overwhelm us with too much to absorb.

It is time for us to mark calendars for mid-summer butterfly counts when butterfly activity is abundant. Visit the West Michigan Butterfly Association web site (http://graud.org/wmba.html) for details about regional counts in our area that include the Allegan (June 29), Rogue River (July 3), Muskegon State Game Areas (July 18) and the Manistee National Forest (July 5). For now, mark your calendar and plan to participate part or all day. If needed, contact Ranger Steve for additional information. 

Butterfly counts are wonderful for discovering a variety of habitats, learning butterfly identification, and enjoying the outdoors. 

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

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Eagle successes


By Ranger Steve Mueller

Immature Bald Eagle still with white on wings changing to white adult head and tail plumage. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

My father-in-law and I were driving the countryside when we spotted a Bald Eagle eating a car killed deer. This is typical behavior for scavenger birds like Bald Eagles. Fish is a high dietary component. Golden Eagles regularly fed on Federally Endangered Utah Prairie Dogs killed on the highway near the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Eagles were hit and killed while eating prairie dogs. I stuffed two for the park service. Golden Eagles and Utah Prairie Dogs numbers declined dramatically for several reasons as did Bald Eagles. 

People realized Bald Eagles like many species comprising our natural heritage were declining. Dr. Wallace, ornithologist from Michigan State University, recognized a problem when American Robins returned in spring to die in large numbers on the MSU campus where DDT was used. The poison bio-accumulated to a lethal level in robins that ate worms and insects. Rachael Carson in her book Silent Spring enlightened the general public to the veil of doom affecting a broad spectrum of wildlife and human health. Her book included information about DDT presence in human breast milk and other health hazards directly affecting people. 

People and industry tried to discredit Carson with hopes that verified and supported science findings would be ignored. Activities to undermine scientific data continue as is currently prevalent by well-funded protagonists opposing climate change evidence. Successes that limited DDT use and other chlorinated hydrocarbons in our country helped eagles and other species increase populations and reduced human health hazards. 

Rather than directly die from metabolized derivatives of DDT, eggs shells thinned and broke under the weight of the parent. With few young to replace long-lived adults, eagles declined toward extinction. It was thought our great grandchildren would not see eagles. Peregrine Falcons also disappeared from most of their range.

The establishment of the Endangered Species Act created hope for declining wildlife and hopefully would help reduce harmful chemicals in our own diet. With the banning of DDT use in the US, conditions for eagles, falcons, other wildlife, and humans improved. 

This past week a friend and I took a Sunday afternoon drive toward Lake Michigan, along the coast and home. We observed twelve Bald Eagles with most being immatures. The young can be distinguished from mature adults because they lack a white head and tail. The long black wings have white bands extending from near the body to wing tips. Eagles seemed to enjoy playing in wind currents on the bright sunny afternoon shoreline. 

The pleasure of seeing young eagles that hatched from eggs with calcium rich shells brings joy beyond knowing the species is recovering from chemical abuses humans released into the environment. It offers comfort knowing our grandkids and future generations might experience healthier lives if we maintain a safe environment for all life. That is one of the fundamental purposes supporting the Endangered Species, Clean Water, and Clear Air Acts. I envision children in the outdoors watching eagles play in the wind. 

Experience elation when you see an eagle eating its fill on a road killed deer. Eagle numbers are increasing despite well-funded efforts to discredit scientifically supported evidence documenting hazards. DDT is still heavily used around the world instead of safer alternatives. People will continue substantive discussions about current issues like the importance for replacing fossil fuels with long term economically sound alternatives. The change to alternative energy can provide our kids and future generations with a healthy environment that serves food production, stable agriculture, and sustainable environmental conditions for people and wildlife.

Bald Eagles are now a common part of our neighborhood nature niche landscape because we recognized our activities impacted their survival and implemented laws to protect them and our health. Whether it is PFAS, climate change, recycling household waste, or the kind, quantity, and frequency of chemicals we use to treat our yards and gardens, it not only affects Bald Eagle survival, we can protect our family’s health and lives. 

Chemicals help us live well but careful selection with minimal application is essential. We challenge our health and wellbeing along with that of coming generations if we do not take responsibility for eagle survival. 

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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Wildlife Barriers


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

An electric Asian Carp barrier is being used to prevent the exotic fish from entering the Great Lakes where the fish will cause billions of dollars in damage to the economy, disrupt the ecosystem, and likely cause direct death of people by knocking them from boats. 

Constructing the St. Lawrence Seaway and the locks for shipping allowed sea lampreys to enter the Great Lakes and greatly impaired native fish survival and the fishing industry. Chemical treatment of streams is required to kill young lamprey to reduce lamprey surviving to enter the Great lakes. The dams on the Grand River have prevented lamprey from getting upstream from Grand Rapids to reproduce in streams. A plan is being implemented to remove the dams to return the river to its natural flow like it was a couple hundred years ago. Pros and cons were debated and dam removal was decided. Treatment of upstream tributaries will be required. 

The US Department of Agriculture spends massive quantities of money inspecting products to prevent micromoths, fruit flies, beetles, and other invertebrates from entering our country. The money spent is miniscule compared to the economic losses experienced when exotic species successfully establish here. Most of us are aware of the billions of dollars damage the Emerald Ash Borer has caused in Michigan since it arrived in 2002. The list of direct economic impact is primary for most people. The social impact came in second when streets were denuded of trees and beautiful woodlots stand with dead leafless trees. Third comes concern for the loss of native insects and associated birds and mammals that depended on the ash trees for life.

I do not fully understand why the order of concern is money, social, and then ecological. If we protect the ecological, a good economy and good social wellbeing follow. 

A wildlife/human barrier is the center of national concern. The evidence supports a wall will be largely infective for preventing people and drug trafficking into the United States. Most unlawful immigration and drug travel is achieved through border inspection sites. Most everyone is opposed to illegal entry but many businesses hire illegal immigrants because it costs less than hiring legal immigrants and people prefer to pay less for products. 

Scientific studies are providing impact evidence the wall between Mexico and United States will have on wildlife populations. Laws are bypassed to build the wall. The Endangered Species, Clean Water, and Clean Air Acts have been exempted for wall construction. How would you feel if laws were exempted to allow PFAS chemicals in your drinking water? There is a movement at the national level for that but that is a separate issue. 

The border wall harms wildlife populations by eliminating, degrading, and fragmenting habitats. Studies indicated 1506 species of native land and aquatic animals will be negatively affected. Most species have not been evaluated. Sixty-two critically Endangered or vulnerable species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature will be impacted. This is not only a question of economic, social, and ecological impacts for sustaining a healthy future for coming generations. It is an ethical behavioral decision of our society’s behavior. It is a “me first” verses an “us first” attitude that affects species that share the planet with us.

The more we impair ecosystems, economics hits our pocketbooks and wellbeing. The estimated 80-billion-dollar wall with a down payment of 5.7 billion has been critically analyzed as less effective than other border security measures. That debate continues with evidence mounting against the wall’s effectiveness. 

For wildlife, the wall will eliminate or degrade natural vegetation, kill animals directly through habitat loss, prevent breeding by separating wildlife, erode soils, change fire regimes, cause flooding and prevent animals from accessing water. The physical barrier will prevent access to food, water, mates, and migration routes. If space allowed I could provide information about how studies indicate specific species will be impacted. 

Scientists are urging the US government to recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political and cultural value of the US-Mexico borderlands. They state national security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage. Our national leader dismisses science. 

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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Wolves of Isle Royale


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Moose were free from large predators from the beginning of the 1900’s when they colonized the island. In the mid 1900’s, wolves were able to cross an ice bridge from Canada to Isle Royale National Park. The danger of moose living in a predator free habitat is that the population can grow to a level causing starvation when food becomes over browsed and depleted. That is evident for human populations in many places around the world. It was a reason for massive Irish immigration to America during the potato famine in Ireland. 

On Isle Royale during the last 70 years, wolves helped keep the moose population from becoming too large. By searching the Internet for Isle Royale wolves, one can find graphs showing moose population fluctuations relative to wolf numbers. A large moose population occurred after someone illegally brought a dog to the island and parvo virus spread into wolves and reduced their population. Later wolf numbers increased and declined again. The limited number of wolves interbred with relatives and weakened their genetic blood strain similar to what occurred with European royalty when they could only marry royalty chosen from a small population set. 

Mating with first cousins is not allowed because of the genetic dangers for the health of children. Where many unrelated individuals live, opportunity allows genes to spread through the population and maintain a healthy population. On the island, wolf gene exchange was limited. Climate warming now prevents ice bridge formation between Canada and the island making it impossible for wolves to naturally come to or leave the island. 

Inbreeding weakens the wolves. A female bore a male and later a female. The declining wolf population was reduced to two wolves. They were the offspring of the female. The male mated with his half-sister. Their offspring did not survive. That male has not been seen for over a year and has probably died. Aerial flights are used to inventory moose and wolf populations in winter. The male could have stayed out of sight but more likely he has died. 

I have wondered about the last remaining lone wolf on the island and how a pack animal handles living alone. Bringing down a large animal like a moose is a pack endeavor. Other animals like beavers are good prey but are not available in winter. Wolves develop emotional relationships with their pack. 

It is clearly evident that when I went away for a week, BeeGee, our dog, was lonely and did not eat for days. When I returned, his demeanor changed. He became excited and joyous in my arrival. Scientists caution us from applying human emotion to animals. BeeGee and I developed a friendship where I was his and he was mine. He was a family dog but, in our case, he and I developed an especially close emotional bond. 

The lone wolf on the island has continued life on her own with no breeding opportunity. This past fall, four wolves were trapped in Canada and released on Isle Royale. One was male and three were female. They are fitted with radio collars that will fall off in two years. Batteries will die before then. At present the collars track wolf movements. The four wolves have remained on the north side of the island. Research scientists hypothesize it is because the south side is occupied wolf territory. That is where the lone female lives. 

The male’s collar stopped moving. His dead body was located for necropsy (autopsy) to determine cause of death. Only three released females occupy the north side of the island and the lone female remains on the south side. More wolves will be released in coming years. Release of 30 wolves is planned. They will come from Canada, Minnesota, and possibly from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to provide genetic variation. 

Some people think that humans should not release wolves, while others think it is essential to prevent moose devastation of habitats that will disrupt the survival for many plants and animals. Human-caused climate change is already preventing wolves from getting to the island. We are a part of nature niches and need to determine how we fit into the natural world scheme. In our yards we determine life and death of species by how we landscape. Our yard landscaping is not wolf management but it is important for the survival of plants, birds, insects, toads, frogs, salamanders, snails, and many mammals. Wild yards are beautiful with abundant life.

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 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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