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Wolves in Ecosystems Part 2


The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Wolves’ presence and behavior increases wildlife populations despite their killing individual prey. Their predatory role in ecosystems has significant positive impacts on animal and plant communities. For thousands of years their presence in Michigan nature niches fluctuated in relation to plant and animal population abundance.

Canada lynx studies found plant populations control top predator populations. The Hudson Bay trapping records show snowshoe hare populations increased despite lynx, wolf, and other predators until the hares over browsed the plants causing hare starvation. When hares died the predators starved. Predation slowed hare population growth that helped maintained healthier communities.

When wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, they caused elk and other prey species to roam more. This saved shrubs and trees from being over browsed in valleys along rivers. Shrubs and trees regenerated habitat when protected by wolves.

Mice, rabbits, and other herbivores were able to find food where deer and elk had previously devastated wildlife communities by overgrazing. Songbirds moved into areas when vegetation recovered. Beavers found rapid growing aspens provided essential food that allowed their return to streams and rivers. They built dams creating rich floodplain habitat that had been lost and washed away in the absence of wolves. Wolves eat beavers when the opportunity arises but these rodents reproduce more rapidly than predators kill them. Large fires in the Yellowstone region also rejuvenated early succession communities but wolves caused elk and deer to move preventing overgrazing.

Beavers created wetland habitats, stabilized stream banks, and reduced soil erosion. Fish populations found healthier streambeds for egg laying. More oxygen in less silted rivers aided fish survival.

With increased landscape vegetation that resulted from wolf presence, plant-eating rodents increased and resulted in more predators like hawks, eagles, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Carrion left by wolves allowed bears, ravens, and other animals to provide more food and it improved their health and reproductive success. Increased shrubs provided more berries needed by bears, birds, and many other animals. What inferences can be applied to Michigan ecosystems? No one animal or plant is responsible for all positive or negative changes. It is a community effort but some animals like the wolf start what is called a positive “trophic cascade” in how they change animal movements and cull animal populations with selected animal predation.

The wolves even changed the course of rivers. Overgrazed landscape along rivers cut straighter channels when wolves were removed but with the wolf return stream meanders returned. Vegetation recovery along banks reduced erosion causing stream meandering. More pools developed with more fish hiding places. Waterfowl increased. Wolves transformed the landscape to healthier nature niches for plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and a host of native wildlife that had diminished in wolf absence.

Human social and economic aspects of wolf presence have been beneficial in the Yellowstone ecosystem but not completely. Ranchers drive cattle into the national forest and leave them unattended to feed. In Michigan, farmers graze animals on their private property and care for their livestock. The national forests are public lands used for watershed flood management, timber harvest, grazing, hunting, hiking, camping, recreation, fishing, and mineral extraction. In short they are all things for all people.

This becomes a management challenge when people consider their interests more important than their neighbors and it results in Congressional gridlock. Maintaining healthy ecosystems to provide for future generations of our families requires decisions beyond one group’s personal self-centered interest.

There are times when wolf management is important for our neighbors. At present in Michigan, each case is addressed when a problem arises. Legal hunting might one day be appropriate in balance with the multiple uses of our National and State forests in the UP. Decisions should be ecosystem focused for maintaining society’s sustainable needs. Plants and animals have essential roles in ecosystem sustainability that we cannot duplicate. Future generations are as important as our own but decisions frequently place priority only on the present.

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

 

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Wolves in Ecosystems (Part 1)


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Wolves crossing the Straits of Mackinaw to the Lower Peninsula (LP) seems unlikely, but it was reported three crossed on ice near Mackinac Bridge. A shipping lane is open all winter but it froze long enough. It turned out the canines were dogs and not wolves.

The Northern LP is heavily populated with people so it is likely human/wolf conflicts would require DNR intervention. Coyotes sometimes take livestock and the DNR receives trapping requests for offending animal removal. This occurred near Rogers City. The farmer was issued a permit to trap the coyote. To everyone’s surprise a wolf was trapped. That is the only wolf known from the LP in almost a century. No tracks, sightings, characteristic predation, or road kills have been found since.

Four wolves were reintroduced to the Upper Peninsula (UP) in 1974 but vigilantes illegally shot two, one was trapped and killed, and a vehicle hit the fourth. Later wolves immigrated on their own from north of Lake Superior in Minnesota, expanded into Wisconsin and reestablished a population in Michigan. They arrived in the western UP about 1984. I personally saw one in the eastern UP that year.

I was conducting contract insect research for the MDNR in Schoolcraft County in a forest clear cut when a wolf stood with forelegs on a cut tree to look at me. My 85 lb. German Shepard was 300 feet to the east. The wolf was about 300 feet to the west. The wolf was larger than a coyote. Coyote’s weigh about 35 lbs. Coyotes are skittish and depart quickly. The wolf paused to look at me before dropping to the ground and disappearing in the open clear cut. That is also typical wolf behavior, while coyotes typically run. I was amazed the wolf could sneak away unseen in a relatively open area. Jim Hammill, MDNR wolf biologist, agreed it was probably a wolf based on the behavior description.

Wolves are predators and were eradicated from Michigan. Following forest logging in the 1800’s, the deer population grew. Few hunters venture into the depths of regenerating forest and many prefer bucks with large antlers instead of does. The deer herds grew until the 1950’s, when a series of hard winters decimated the population. Since then deer herds grew with some reduction years.

The MDNR is responsible for managing wildlife population sizes where political and social motivations often have priority over ecological science. One MDNR wildlife biologist told me he knows hunting licenses pay his salary so it makes it right to base his decisions on license fee promotion rather than sound ecological science. He tries to balance both when possible.

Devastation of plant and animal populations caused by deer feeding habitats has concerned people. Most people, however, do not read supporting ecological studies. Some State Parks and nature centers began politically challenging deer hunts to reduce the devastation. Hoffmaster State Park hosted a Trillium Festival where deer eliminated most trilliums and reduced other plant and animal populations. Objections to these hunts are often based on emotional responses and personal desires rather than nature niche ecology.

Four conservation groups visited Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary during September and were pleased with the abundance of native species compared to exotics species. The back 40 acres have been leased for hunting for decades and it helps keep the deer herd in ecological balance. Several years ago, the hunters told me poachers shot several deer and left them to rot in the woods. If the deer meat was processed, it would have been reported and hunters prosecuted. The sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural land so I suspect a local farmer did the poaching. The MDNR will issue harvest permits for deer causing damage to farmers, so poaching is not necessary. The same is true for wolves where they live. If wolves were present here, the deer population would probably not be as large and fewer would be killed annually on the road at Ody Brook. Unfortunately there would be social/political wolf problems in Kent County because of our large human and domestic animal populations. Wolves will kill pet dogs and domestic animals.

Wolves in the UP now exceed the target population of 200. Some conflicts exist between farmers and wolves. The MDNR inspects problems and specific wolves are removed. This helps prevent wolf packs from learning to take domestic animals. I waited to share this until after the recent wolf ballot election to avoid the ire of people voting based on emotion and personal interest and those preferring scientific research study decisions. Details of the role of wolves in ecosystems will be described in Part 2 of this article next week. Suffice it to say for now, I am pleased both issues were defeated. The first ballot issue was to create a hunting season on wolves managed by the MDNR. It was the better of the two but political pressure similar to deer hunting pressure would be significant. The 2nd ballot issue would have placed decision control with a small politically appointed group that could accept or reject scientific findings. I expect there will be a time when managed hunts might be appropriate.

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

 

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Passenger Pigeon Extinction


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It has been 100 years since the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth died and joined the dinosaurs in extinction. It was on September 1, 1914, that the last remaining individual of its kind died, in the Cincinnati Zoo. We mourn the death of the last individual. Society experienced greater sorrow with loss of an entire species on that day. Gone were its contributions toward sustaining biodiversity in ecosystems.

The pigeon was the most abundant bird species, with a population that might have exceeded the number of all ducks combined. Its feeding activities likely controlled diseases like Lyme disease. Pigeon populations in the millions moved through the eastern deciduous forest feeding on acorns, American chestnuts, seeds and nuts. More than a billion total pigeons thrived. Their abundance removed food that would have supported deer and mice. This limited excessive deer and mice reproduction and resulted in fewer fleas. That reduced the spread of Lyme disease. Nature niche connections are often not obvious.

No Passenger Pigeons were left to pass on their genetic legacy into the coming millennia. An important thread in the fabric of life was stripped from ecosystems. It may seem the death of a species 100 years ago has no or little impact on people in the present. The increase in Lyme disease is just one impact that might have caused disability or even death for some people. Making absolute connections is not likely. Other connections relate to forest reproduction, abundance and composition of tree species. Pigeon feeding activity directed forest developed and numbers of other plants. In turn, it impacted the abundance and composition of animal populations present today.

Current scientific evidence suggests human activities are pushing many species toward extinction. The monarch butterfly population has declined due to land use practices. It numbered in the billions but last year’s winter population was only about 37 million. The Passenger Pigeon dropped below a threshold for survival and disappeared. There is concern the same might occur with the migratory monarch population. Several things limit monarch survival but one is human use of genetically modified crops that can tolerate herbicides so we can support an ever-growing human population. Crops growers increase the amount of chemicals on crops to eliminate wild plants like milkweed that are in or near croplands. With only a few milkweeds, monarchs cannot find food plants to lay their eggs as they migrate from Texas to Michigan.

All species strive to increase their kind but limiting factors keep them from continuous population growth. That is the case with the introduced exotic emerald ash borer that has largely eliminated ash trees in the landscape. In regions where they kill ashes, the beetles run out of food and their populations’ crash. It is a boom and bust population. People have found ways to delay human starvation for some regions. We have not responded by working to keep our population at or below the environment’s carrying capacity that would sustain our population for the centuries. Instead we are moving toward a boom number that will bust and crash. A continuous growing population will result in massive human death at some point. Human behavior today is not maintaining sustainable conditions to support future generations. Instead we focus on immediate personal interests and desires with boom and bust lifestyles.

Extinctions caused by human misuse of the Earth’s natural resources threaten other life forms but also threatens our own species long-term survival. Our population can sustain itself for millennia if we live within Earth’s carrying capacity. If not, we create a boom and bust that will cause massive deaths. Our behavior in the present is critically important for future human generations.

Many people choose to ignore evidence supporting the human influence on climate change or our impacts on species survival. Society’s behavior acted toward the Passenger Pigeon like society behaves toward climate change and species extinction threats. If we were interested in creation care and our offspring 20 generations hence, we would strive for sustainable lifestyles that do not squeeze other species off the planet. It depends on personal choices we make at home.

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

 

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Lunar Eclipse


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It was one of those rare occasions when the Earth Sun and Moon aligned in a straight line. This does not occur every month so we do not experience eclipses often. If astronauts were on the moon, they would have witnessed a total solar eclipse while we watched the lunar eclipse. Earth cast its shadow on the moon when it was directly between Sun and Moon.

The Earth hides the moon rapidly unless one is too hurried to watch. Our patience is tried with the hurried business of our lives. I look forward to vacations when time is taken to contemplate the world and nature niches. It takes three days to slow down and shift my focus from work and home obligations.

One visitor joined me to see the eclipsing moon. He was having difficulty locating it and thanked me for being present. His arrival came when the upper right moon was just already starting to whiten. He thought it would was to be a blood moon. I commented that had already come and gone.

Watching the entire drama offers more than the great moments captured with a camera. The news showed pictures through amateur telescopes that were better than seen with the naked eye or binoculars but watching the progression exceeds the best still images.

Darkness began at the lower moon a gradually swept upward to the right until the Earth was centered between Sun and Moon. During the darkest phase the “blood red” hue was apparent. It amazes me how quickly the event comes and goes. Observers have a couple hours to enjoy an uncommon celestial event.

It has only been hundreds of years since Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for explaining the science behind celestial objects and described that Earth is not the center of the universe. A great number of people do not accept scientific process or scientific findings because it does not align with what they “know” or want to believe. Scientists mathematically predict events like the lunar eclipse and it occurs rapidly enough for people to watch from beginning to end. Events like extinctions and global climate change are not easily observed and many people dismiss the evidence as too elusive to accept. In some ways we are no different from people of the 16th century.

One beauty of the eclipse is that we watch phases of the moon come and go in a couple hours instead of over one month. The events simulate the new moon, quarter moons, and full moon. Unlike the new moon, the arc of darkness is in the opposite direction at the beginning, but when the lighted portion begins to show, it appears like the new moon. The quarter moons are not divided with half dark and half light. Instead we see the arc of Earth’s shadow on the moon. Always watch for subtleness in nature.

The use of binoculars allows us to see ridges and craters along the edges of the moon. Toward the center we can see light and dark portions but the mountainous relief is only apparent near the edges.

Decades ago about 40 people joined me at Kent County’s highest elevation at Fisk Knob County Park to observe Haley’s comet. The Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is too wooded for good viewing of the horizon just before sunrise. I set up a telescope and many people from the Grand Rapids area arrived to witness the once in a lifetime event. Some expected a comet to be the size of the moon. Instead it was star-sized with a faint tail. I searched the dark sky unsuccessfully. Finally as the darkness of night began to fade, Haley’s comet came into view. I described the location for those using binoculars and hurriedly encouraged all to look through the telescope. They viewed the comet and saw its tail. The tail was not easily visible. People said they would not have seen it without help.

Check the HCNC web site for program details or better yet visit. Real experiences in nature exceed the ease of the internet’s vicarious exposure. Individuals and families getting into nature remind us we are a part of nature instead of merely being observers from a distance. When immersed in nature, at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary or HCNC, nature comes alive.

To cap the enjoyment of another fine day, a yellow-rumped warbler was gathering breakfast among dimly lit tree leaves, as the dawn arrived at the eclipse conclusion.

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

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Colors In the Wind


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Red Maples in swamplands are the first to show fall color. It is typical for stressed plants or weak dying plants to change color earlier. Difficult growing conditions in swamps are demonstrated by the red appearing first on the maples in standing wet conditions.

Sassafras trees show red or yellow depending on the amount of sugar, anthocyanin, and carotenes present in the leaves. Sumacs change early to become a beautiful crimson. At the equinox, color change picks up speed. Green still dominates the landscape.

Uppermost tree leaves change color first. Treetop leaves are exposed to chilling cold before more protected inner leaves. This results in color changes at the top first and is usually followed by leaf color at the tree canopy edge.

Fall breezes rustle leaves and we get to see the first colors in the wind drifting to the ground, as leaves break free. A few fall until a gust of wind fills the air with a couple hundred leaves. Cherries begin shedding leaves before many other species. Their leaves are not cherry red like the fruits but are yellow.

Aspen colors draw our attention as green and amber leaves quake in the slightest air movement. The leaves have a flat petiole that holds the blade to the stem. The flat petiole makes them quake easily. The movement captures our eyes and the sound of wind among the leaves draws attention. As fall progresses, aspens become beacons of reflected amber light in the setting sun. Amber aspens are like massive streetlights beginning to glow in the dimming evening woods.

Closer to the ground, dogwood shrubs are a deep dark maroon and raspberries are a rich red. Among the most brilliant fall colors are the Virginia creeper vines clinging to trunks of dead trees. They are exposed to full sun and have more sugar in the leaves. The exposure to sun aids pigment richness. The creepers that are more shaded from full sun are usually yellow.

Watch trees in various nature niche situations to discover subtle variations occurring where individual plants work to survive in their unique location. Discover trees of the same species with one growing in less ideal conditions and notice it changes color before others of it kind growing in better conditions.

Plants shed leaves in preparation for winter by producing an abscission layer between the petiole (leave stem) and the branch. This is a layer of large cells that seals fluid movement from leave to stem or stem to leave. If weather conditions prevent leaves from shipping sugars from the leaves before the abscission layer forms, sugar gets trapped and fall colors become more beautiful.

Large cells of the abscission layer create a weak area where the leaves separate from the tree to create colors in the wind when they fall.

Sugar maples hold leaves well and then suddenly drop them in a few days. Karen’s parents often visit for her October 20th birthday. When they arrive, the two maples by the house still have many leaves. Her parents are always amazed by the time they leave three days later that most of the leaves have been shed.

Oak trees do not form a good abscission layer. The result is many of the leaves remain on the tree into winter or even spring when new growth pushes the old leaf off. Sometimes oak leaves turn red but it is usual for them to simply brown. Enjoy the flitting and fluttering of colors in the wind, while taking notice of individual trees.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net

 

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Rare Bear


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

A black bear was reported to have crossed Northland Drive near 15 Mile Road a few years ago. I wondered if it had followed the Rogue River to Cedar Creek, made its way to Little Cedar Creek, and possibly wandered through Ody Brook before getting to 15 Mile Road. A visitor told me he saw a bear track here a few years ago but I personally never saw evidence of the bear. The track was seen about the time bear crossed Northland. Many people may also recall the sow bear that wintered near Ada and emerged from her winter sleep with young.

Michigan’s regeneration of forest and wild land vegetation has made it possible for bears to re-inhabit areas where they lived prior to forest clearing and large human population settlement. Living near bears may present some problems. Generally, we can co-exist, but not always.

One September I was camping at Yellowstone National Park, at the edge of the campground. A ranger drove through the campground with a loudspeaker warning people to put coolers away and to clean camp well after eating because a bear was coming into the campground for easy food. The park service set a live trap to capture the bear for relocation but had not been successful yet.

My tent was set up with one side over me but I folded one side open so I could view the forest. At about 11 p.m. I was lying in the sleeping bag and saw the bear walking directly towards me. I was deciding if I should get out of the bag and into my vehicle but it was too late. The bear walked past my tent ignoring me. I heard it beat a food cooler on the picnic table that the campers next to me had not properly stored. After breaking it, the bear proceeded to bear proof garbage cans where it pounded them and walked on.

I went to sleep until 3 a.m., when I woke to the noise and breath of a bear. It had walked around my tent and was peering in at me. Our noses were inches apart. In the moonlight, I could see its silhouette. I experienced some fear. Bears are powerful and can be unpredictable. If the bear was getting used to people it might be more likely to injure me in some way.

I have encountered bears in the Upper Peninsula and other locations. In each instance the bear has immediately turned and ran in fear. Their escapes were noisy as they ran through brush, making stems push apart and slap back together.

This bear was inches from my head and a startle might cause it strike out with a powerful paw, break my neck or otherwise injure me. Maybe it would take a quick defensive bite before leaving. Fortunately, I did not have any food in my tent.

For a brief moment the bear and I looked each other in the eye. Almost instinctively I quietly said under my breath “hello.” The bear realized it was where it did not want to be. It turned and started trotting into the forest. I said “hello, hello, hello” a little louder with each word as it left. It picked up speed with each hello. My purpose at that point was to make noise that would keep the bear moving away.

The bear was not interested in me and probably feared me. It was looking for easy food. The neighbor campers were endangering the bear by leaving a cooler accessible. If the bear was captured, moved to a new location and later returned to the campground, it would probably be killed. People can learn to live with bears in nature niches but we need to act intelligently in their presence.

If I shouted at the bear when I first saw it nose to nose, it might have been more defensively aggressive and swipe me with a paw or bite me. Instead, a quiet hello alerted it and it departed quickly. It remains a pleasant memorable experience for me instead of tragic for either of us.

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

 

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Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary expansion


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

Walk Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary with the Michigan Botanical Club on September 13 at 2 p.m. or with the River City Wild Ones on Sept 20 at 1:30. The local conservation clubs will explore the sanctuary in search for plants, animals, and their ecological requirements while enjoying the company of nature enthusiasts.

This will be a great introduction to a couple different nature clubs and great people where many will share their knowledge and excitement for things natural and wild.

Ody Brook is managed to enhance nature’s biodiversity to support a healthy and sustainable human community. The sanctuary is located in the headwaters for Little Cedar Creek south of Cedar Springs on Northland Drive across the road from V&V Nursery. Come explore nature and meet nature enthusiasts from local conservation groups.

Meet and park at V&V Nursery. Spend some time at the nursery considering fall selection specials on plants prior to winter dormancy. V&V Nursery helps area residents beautify yards and lives. We will start the field trips from the nursery parking area. We appreciate V&V’s willingness to allow parking. Parking space is not available at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary.

Over 116 bird species, 24 mammals, 11 herps and 52 butterfly species have been documented along with 250 species of plants. Dragonflies dart with beauty as they feed on aerial insects. They lay eggs in Little Cedar Creek where naiads spend months to years growing to the adult stage. Trout feed and utilize the headwaters in spring.

We will encounter other beautiful insects that are active in the fall. Snowy Tree Crickets, katydids, beetles, colorful flies, and various true bugs are expected. This is an opportunity to view a variety of life and to receive help with identification.

Fall flowers provide nutrition for wildlife while plants focus on seed production for their own species survival. Come learn to recognize plant families and species common to our neighborhoods. Both field trips will be fun enriching afternoons for families. Come for a short stay or for an hour and a half.

Trails lead around a pond, through the floodplain, over bridges crossing the creek and through upland field and forest. Wear long sleeved shirts and pants to protect legs. Good footwear is recommended. If it rains prior to field trip days, the floodplain may be wet and somewhat muddy.

The sanctuary recently expanded to 54 acres and protects the creek headwaters leading to Cedar Creek, Rogue River, Grand River, and Lake Michigan. This is a great open house opportunity to explore Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s expansion. The privately owned and managed sanctuary accepts donation support and welcomes scheduled visits.

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

 

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Live On Friendly Terms


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

One of my early poems expresses thoughts I maintain today.

 

I cannot say I am educated

because I know plants

in the wild.  When I know

them on friendly terms, I

will not need to say I’m

educated for the wise will know

and others, well they won’t care. – October 13, 1974

 

When you encounter plants in your yard it is not necessary to know its name to appreciate its beauty or presence. It can help if you want help maintain healthy nature niches. Knowing the plants to remove so native species can thrive will better maintain soil health and species diversity.

Many non-native species crowd out native species that maintain soil health or help native animals survive. The exotic Emerald Ash Borer has cost Michigan’s economy ten of millions of dollars in economic loss in ten years and it continues to devastate ash tree populations. It is reducing moth, butterfly, bee, and many other insect populations that are important to birds for feeding young.

Knowing plants on friendly term suggests we take responsibility for our actions and cause no harm. A principal for doctors is to cause no harm. That is easier said than done. Medicines often cause harm but hopefully do more good than harm as they help us recover from variously ailments.

When we remove plants from the landscape to construct homes we do harm. How we manage the remaining yard can allow native plants to thrive. Those plants are better at supplying needs for native mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, insect and other species than non-natives.

We can learn to live to with nature and in nature niches. Many of our activities work to separate us from nature and eliminate nature niches. Manicured lawns are non-native plants that preclude most native species from surviving.

We maintain some lawn around the house and have mowed trails through our Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary but most of the property and been allowed to revert to native nature niches to maintain healthy biodiversity. The mowed lawn looks nice and keeps mosquitoes away from the house so we can sit comfortably on the porch.

Beyond the lawn, the yard is bustling with birds feeding on insects in knee high wildflowers, shrubland, and forest. The yard is alive with sound, visual beauty, wild activity and enriches our lives and the lives of other species.

I have documented about 250 species of plants here with many more to be discovered. I have overlooked a Wafer-ash growing here that my friend Chip Francke noticed this week. It added a species to my list but it is also a food plant for the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly and probably other species.

Over 100 bird, 24 mammal, 11 herps, 51 butterfly species have been documented along many other species. Many creatures that share our yards and I think it wise for more of us transform part of our yards to wild nature niches.

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

 

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Chickadee Loop Trail


The short Chickadee Loop at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is rewarding. From the Welcome Center parking area take a quarter mile walk for exposure to things wild and natural.

Walking directly west from the Welcome Center, the trail leads through an oak forest to a junction where the trail continues north (right). The habitat transitions from oak forest to young oak forest at the junction. The area was maintained as an oak savanna in the 1980’s through the 2008.

A savanna is an open grass and forbs community with scattered trees. Scattered trees allow sunlight to penetrate to ground vegetation. In the savanna, Wild Blue Lupine (a forb) flowers in late May. It adds nitrogen to the soil with the aid to root nodules that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A variety of plants thrive in a savanna’s lightly filtered sunlight.

Oak savanna is Michigan’s rarest plant/animal community. We often hear how over 70 percent of Michigan’s wetlands have been drained and has led to a great decline in waterfowl and associated wetland species. Groups like Duck’s Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and many others have worked for a century to restore essential habitat for nature niche neighbors that depend on wetlands.

Savannas are home for rare and endangered species that require survival help and management if we are to keep nature’s bounty alive and well. There are a few prairies species that can be found at HCNC but the landscape does not contain any prairie habitats. Michigan’s prairies were mostly restricted to SW counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Oak savannas contain some prairie species but referring to it as a prairie would be a disservice and teach scientific misconceptions.

Chickadee Loop turns east at the north end of the former savanna. A beautiful shrub known a winged sumac grows at the clearing edge. It has large compound leaves. A compound leaf is a leaf that has many leaflets that appear leaf-like. To recognize a leaflet from a leaf, look at the base of the flat leaf-like blade. If a bud is present, it is a leaf. If one needs to look farther back to find a bud, it is a compound leaf made of several leaflets.

At the next trail junction Chickadee Loop turns south toward the Welcome Center. At the junction one can take a short spur to the left that leads about 100 feet to a vernal pond. I designed a trail around the west side of the pond to the nature center’s service drive. That allowed the east half of the pond to remain wild for nature to carry on without disturbance from human activity. Please recognize you are a guest in nature’s habitats when visiting HCNC and provide proper respect for plant and animal privacy and living condition needs.

On the final stretch to the Welcome Center, you will cross a floating bridge that rises and lowers with water level at the permanent pond. A pond is a body of water where light penetrates to the bottom. Lakes are deep enough to prevent good light penetration. Size is not best measure for separating ponds and lakes biologically.

Before reaching the Welcome Center, you pass the Howard Christensen Memorial Spring. Frank and Rita’s only child died from a brain tumor while a high school senior and graduated posthumously in 1962-63. To honor him, his parents donated land to establish a nature center that would allow youth to experience discovery in the natural world. Frank and Rita were not wealthy people but owned about 100 acres they gave to the community. It was a gift of the heart that founded HCNC in fall 1974. The Grand Rapids Downtown Kiwanis Club provided funds for the construction of the Welcome Center, memorial spring stonework, and the drilling of the flowing well. Visit the office to purchase a HCNC membership.

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

 

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Exclosure Observations


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Helping students and the public understand the nature of science was an important goal for me as director of Howard Christensen Nature Center. Education deals with many misconceptions and the scientific process helps people understand that science, based on verifiable evidence, is self-correcting.

To see science in action we constructed an “exclosure.”  It helped people observe natural changes in nature niches. It was a ten by twenty foot fenced area. Fence posts were five feet apart. In the first section we did not disturb the area during construction and left it untouched for the next twenty years. The other five by ten-foot sections were cleared of vegetation on a rotating three-year cycle.

Sheep sorrel was an early colonizing ground cover. Plants, insects and small animals could enter and colonize without our influence. Large animals like deer were excluded. After the plants were cleared and roots filtered from the soil, we observed colonizing plants and animals. Ants made about 20 small mounds about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Sheep sorrel, pigweed, and five clumps of grass also took hold within three weeks.

Rather than describe details of what was observed, lets focus attention on nature niche establishment. John Curtis first described the process of plant succession. By documenting the species and the order they colonized sand dunes, he established predictable models. Plants changed the soil and made it more hospitable for different species. It could be predicted how long it would take for particular species to establish.

Plant colonizers were replaced by mosses, perennial grass or other plants when soil conditions improved. Later woody shrubs and trees could establish. With each new plant species various insects, birds, and mammals could make a living.

I mentioned science is self-correcting. Over the years, repeated studies showed a predictable sequence of colonizing plants and animals. It was found the sequence was somewhat variable based on surrounding vegetation and animal populations. Generally species arrived in the same sequence to occupy nature niches. Continued long-term studies corrected initial conclusions.

Using HCNC’s exclosure, students learned the process of collecting and analyzing data. As humans, we are prone to draw conclusions based on how things appear or how we want them to be. Often they are correct but frequently we have not collected adequate data to confirm our conclusions. Scientific process slowly builds valid conclusions that get modified and corrected when studies indicate our conclusions are not perfect.

The process allows us to discard misconceptions and support what is shown to be correct. That is where climate change discussions frustrate many. Some people deny it is greatly influenced by human activities. Most scientists acknowledge climate change is greatly human influenced but qualify the statement with “pending further data collection.” Science process is always open to modification pending further data collection. Many people accept unsupported absolute conclusions because they do not like science being open to modification or not being what they desire to think.

The exclosure experiment at HCNC helped people learn how scientific process works and how new data collection modified our understanding of how nature functions. It would have been nice if the experiment were continued after I left. We could have documented changes in growing season as well as plant and animal composition. Many scientific studies take decades or centuries to make valid predications. We tend to be impatient and want absolute answers now.

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

 

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