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Tag Archive | "ranger steve"

Late season frogs

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Northern leopard frogs were common when I was young and exploring neighborhood wetlands. They have become uncommon and even rare in many locations for reasons unknown. It is not just because I have grown and developed other pursuits that they seem less abundant. Herpetologists studying the frogs confirm decreased numbers. If you have them in abundance, celebrate and protect healthy habitat. We do not understand all the critical features in their nature niche needed for survival.

The pickerel frog is a small North American frog, characterized by the appearance of seemingly “hand-drawn” squares on its dorsal surface. Photo by Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

They begin breeding later in spring than the Wood Frogs, Western Chorus Frogs, and Spring Peepers described in last week’s article. The late season frogs do best in permanent water. Shallow water near lake shores with lots of grassy vegetation, marshes, and moderately slow stream borders and inlets provide good breeding habitat. I think that clearing lake shores of vegetation for better beaches and eliminating vegetation for better swimming areas contributed to frog decline. I have not seen that confirmed by amphibian studies so that hypothesis remains unanswered. 

Removing vegetation chemically or with manual equipment does not bode well for aquatic organisms. People want fish to thrive, but fish are challenged with more sterile habitat as are amphibians, insects, and wetland feeding birds and mammals. 

Pickerel frogs look similar to leopard frogs but can be distinguished by two features. Pickerel frogs have large rectangular dark spots with narrower light areas between them. The leopard frogs’ dark spots are smaller and rounded with greater light color separating spots. More significant is the Pickerel frog’s hidden bright yellow at the base of the hind legs. Leopard frogs might have a faint yellow there. Both frogs normally develop into an adult in one season but some require two summers. That is a reason they do best in permanent waters. Those breeding in late April or early May are more likely to reach adulthood in one warm season. 

Two similar frogs are green and bull frogs. Bull frogs get much larger but that takes time and may require a few years growth. Both usually take more than one year to transform from the tadpole stage to a tailless adult frog. Green frogs line up around the edge of the vernal pond to the west of the Red Pine interpretive building at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. That pond sometimes retains water throughout the winter but not always. Many developing frogs that breed there must die. The permanent tadpole pond southwest of the building offers better survival chances. 

One habitat management policy I implemented when I was director at HCNC was for interpretive teachers to only take students around the west shore of vernal pond to allow the east shoreline to remain undisturbed by school groups. The purpose was twofold. Number one was to teach a respect and reverence for life and secondarily to hopefully improve survival opportunity for frogs in that half of the pond.

Green frogs have what is called a dorsolateral ridge or fold that runs from head toward the rear. This ridge is absent on bull frogs so even smaller bull frogs can be distinguished by the lack of the long ridge. Bull frogs have a ridge that runs from behind the eye and wraps around the flat circular eardrum called a tympanum that is behind and below the eye. Green and bull frogs sing when the temperature warms to above 70ºF making them the latest to join the seasonal orchestra. A green frog sounds like someone plucking a banjo or guitar string. Bull frogs resemble a cow mooing. 

The last late season frog common in our region is the gray tree frog that is medium sized between the wood frog and green frog. It is somewhat toad like in appearance and has suction cup toes and can climb windows. Like other frogs it breeds in water. It moves away from ponds when grown, like chorus frogs, spring peepers, wood frogs, and leopard frogs. These frogs all feed in moist forests but the gray tree frogs seems to tolerate drier areas better. They can be found hiding on the siding of our homes and feed on insects by lights at night. Their call is a sharp short trill unlike the exceedingly long trill of American toads that reside in insecticide free gardens.

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

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Skeleton discovery is exciting and initiates mystery investigation. Who was it? Why and how did she or he die? Who should we tell or show? Should we keep the bones? Will a museum want to keep the bones in their artifacts collection? 

When I was ten, I found a skeleton with dried skin in the corner of the garage. Though it had been dead all winter, I was able to determine it was a robin’s remains. The bird is still in my possession and was shown to visitors recently along with other discoveries from my childhood. 

When exploring a bog with my older brothers in 1961, we walked out on a log. At the end, Mike saw the end of a bone protruding from the bog surface. He pulled it up and saw it was a deer’s femur. We probed and found other bones. We tried to determine where the skull would be located. He thought to the right and I thought to the left. As we pulled up ribs, vertebrae, hip bones and more, I felt something large and hard. 

I lunged my arm deep and pulled up the skull with my fingers holding it by empty eye sockets. It was a thrill to find a skeleton that had been preserved in a bog for who knows how many years or decades. Tannic bog acids slowed decay and colored the bones a rich tan. We guessed the deer fell off the log and became stuck in the bog ooze. That skeleton was shown to recent visitors also. It has been in my possession for almost 60 years. 

Most skeletons are left where found. Once when walking along a dirt road in the upper peninsula near Lake Michigan, my daughter was exploring the roadside and saw bones. She found a monster that was probably ten feet long. She was four years old. We spent time looking at the great variety of bones and determined they were from a horse. Someone perhaps had been riding their horse when it died. They probably retrieved riding gear and left the carcass to vultures, coyotes, and other scavengers. 

I should be so lucky when my demise comes and be returned to the elements by hungry neighbors like a dead tree left to be decayed by fungus, bacteria, hungry beetles and scavengers. For many readers this might bring queasy feelings because many want to be embalmed and kept in underground vaults or be cremated. 

My remains will not get up and wander graveyards each Halloween to frighten people but it is fun to imagine such scary events. Children have fun costuming as zombies or skeletons that wander neighborhoods when darkness ends the day.

When exploring the neighborhood or roadsides, do not be surprised to find tiny to large skeletons. By year’s end, antlers will be discarded by bucks. Mice, squirrels, and other animals will gnaw on them for needed phosphate and calcium. Antlers provide essential nature niche nutrients to those still alive. 

Antlers are bone material grown from spring to fall and discarded after breeding season. Some are giant like those of moose and elk. Others are moderately small like those of deer. 

Horns are different and not shed. They persist from year to year and continue growth throughout the animal’s lifetime. They might be straight like a pronghorn’s or curled as with big horned sheep. Horns are modified hair made of keratin instead of bone material. Hooves are composed of keratin.

Spend time this Halloween season exploring for skeletons. It should be fun and educational instead of frightening. Keep the fun frightening part for Halloween trick or treat events with friends and family.

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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Who would do that?

Ranger Steve

A woman drove up the drive and started to back out. I opened the door and motioned for her to return. She said she was looking for Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary but this is a private residence. I said yes on both accounts. 

“I am Ranger Steve, the sanctuary manager and ecologist that lives here. This is our private property where we allow visitors to experience nature.”

She said, “Who would do that with their private property?”

People post property with no trespassing or keep out signs. It means this is mine and others are not welcome. People have sound reasons because people might hunt without permission, dig up plants, or otherwise despoil the land instead of respecting the rights of plants, animals, and the human residents. 

As a young person, I decided to do good for others and share. People farm their property raising livestock and crops for a living. To support them we buy produce at the farmers market and the grocery instead of raising them here. Farmers make money from animal and plant crops to sustain families. It is my hope that each landowner will set aside at least ten percent of their property to sustain a natural healthy sustainable world. 

I do not think that is adequate so at Ody Brook we leave 80 to 90 percent of the land wild where we manage habitat diversity to support as many species as possible. Many people own property where they allow it to thrive naturally. Periodically they might harvest timber selectively to help pay property taxes. 

My naturalist career did not provide a large income but we were able to purchase 61 acres over the course of living here for 41 years by buying property from neighbors. My neighbor wanted me to protect and enhance nature by acquiring her floodplain that was not suitable for farming. She wanted to keep it until her death. In the last year of life, she needed money to live in a care facility and sold me land. Her tillable land and home were sold to others. She was pleased knowing I would be a good steward caring for the land. 

We lease seven acres for tilling, but the income does not cover the taxes. My pension and social security allows us to live simply to enhance biodiversity. College interns help manage the sanctuary to develop skills for employment advantage. High school students assist with habitat management labor to meet our mission of “biodiversity enhancement.” 

Non-curable multiple myeloma cancer was expected to take me years ago. I continue to survive to write this column, maintain the sanctuary, and share it with people, plants, and animals to promote a sustainable environment for present and future generations. Retirement investments were used to purchase the property. Pension and social security make it possible to live simply. Mostly staying home allows me a good life with my health limitations and I explore the sanctuary daily. I tire quickly and have benches along trails for resting.

We have not charged people to explore natural wonders. Donations and help are appreciated. Interpretive signs line trails. Fallen trees are removed from paths as are exotic plants that cause harm to native ecosystem species. 

Most people do not donate and it is not required for access. Some volunteer time with projects. As my health and abilities decline, it becomes more challenging to do the physical work. I have a 10-pound lifting limit because of brittle cancer bones and have experienced ten fractures. The cancer and chemo tire me and I need frequent naps. Being tired, weak, and brittle is no different from what other seniors experience. We all keep plugging along and doing our best to stay productive for the benefit of community members and family.

For me, being productive is helping enhance living conditions for plants and animals that share the property and being willing to allow people to come learn about nature’s biodiversity that sustains human life. That answers the question “who would open their private property to others?” I hope you will do that with your property and set aside at least 10 percent for native wild species survival. Donate to land conservancies, nature centers, and conservation organizations. It will help economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Be kind and giving. 

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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Enjoyable butterfly counts

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Four West Michigan Butterfly Association (WMBA) count summaries are posted in Table 1. Community members participated with WMBA members. Counts are part of a North American Butterfly Association (NABA) continent wide program. Michigan has 17 plus or minus counts annually. For various reasons not all counts occur each year. As Michigan’s editor, I examine count results and the data are published by NABA annually. Not all data have been received for 2020. We will see how Covid-19 affects this year’s adventures. Hopefully outdoor counts continued with adequate social distancing and masks. 

Personally my immune system is compromised with uncurable terminal multiple myeloma cancer. I thank people for wearing masks to protect others, themselves and me. Mostly, I continue to stay at home except for weekly chemo and rare outings.

Each butterfly count is organized differently. We travel in one group to help each other with searching and identification. Some groups split and survey small sections of their count area individually to provide greater site coverage. Locally we like the single group. It helps new people learn species and habitat associations. 

Table 1 shows that both species and individual numbers vary among count circles. Reasons for variance include dates for counts and habitat suitability. As the season progresses, different species end flight periods and new ones begin. Highly important is habitat size and plant composition. We try to visit a good representation of habitats in each count circle. Count circles have a 7.5-mile radius from a selected center point that remains constant from year to year. Rogue River and Muskegon counts have been surveyed for more than 30 years. 

Fifty-six species were observed on our combined four counts. That is about 1/3 of all Michigan species. At the bottom of Table 1, notice the species and numbers for each count. Included are the immature butterfly life cycle stages found as egg, larva, or chrysalis. 

To learn butterflies and associate them with habitat, consider joining the WMBA and participating in the 2021 local counts. Club members are friendly and helpful. If interested in other Michigan or national counts contact me for information. You can contact me now and I will reach out to you next summer. Contact me if you are interested in acquiring the book Michigan Butterflies and Skippers by Mo Nielsen. I have some of the last remaining copies.

Google the “West Michigan Butterfly Association” web site or contact me for club or butterfly information. 

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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Sunset’s mood

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Lead gray coals high in the sky were surrounded by blue air near flaming white clouds. A sunset mood was created during the day’s last hour. Sitting by a campfire, we witnessed the sky’s final glows. White clouds flickered like flaming flashes from the campfire before us. Unlike fire’s heat, cold ice vapor slowly moved to reshape sky blazes. From below the horizon, the sun gave elemental life to create color and textures above. 

Rippled cloud surfaces replicated windblown sand dune ridges with a gentle windward slope that dropped steeply on its lee. The “cloud-sand” changed as light rays lengthened in the dimming evening. Burning above the steel gray cloud coals, changing light of dusk deepened the shades of light. As night blanketed the Earth, drifting clouds replicated campfire flashes as they changed from white to blue, yellow, orange, and red. 

From the warm campfire vantage point a few feet away, we witnessed a larger aroura pulsating physical life into sky’s water vapor high above. An ethereal experience settled the day with an evening calmness that created peaceful darkness enveloping heart and soul. Wilderness solitude allows time among elements that slips by us unnoticed during the bustle of daily life.

Clouds and sky deliver life’s contentment for our spirit. Rejuvenation and anticipation for the next day’s adventure on hiking trails, paddling waves, and intervening portages build. Morning light brings fresh green visions through translucent leaves trembling in day’s growing breeze after night quietly serenades us to sleep.

The songs of spring peepers and chorus frogs calling through the night lulled us into a dream world and is replaced in the warmth of a new day when gray tree frogs and American toads bellowed unique trills. The gray tree frog’s is loud, short and abrupt. The toad has an extended trill extending on and on. It is fun to imitate and continue the trill as long as the toads, but our lungs do not have the capacity for such long trills. The toad draws air in nostrils, seals them and passes air back and forth across the larynx allowing production of long trills.

The wail in night darkness across calm water by a common loon chills fearful nerves or creates a peace not found away from wild lakes. Each person experiences the tremolo differently. A morning mist hanging above the lake like rising steam outlines a loon’s silhouette before it dives to pursue fish. It is a mystery where it will surface and how long it will stay submerged. Loons can hold their breath longer than us and plunge deeper. Sometimes fish are swallowed underwater but occasionally they are brought to the surface. I wonder if the size of the fish determines the swallowing location. 

In wilderness, pressing questions like these have primary importance instead of minutiae that arise continuously in the workplace and home. 

Near shore white-throated sparrows call “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” at day’s awaking. If we cross to Canada’s forest, the song will be interpreted as Oh Sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada.” In areas south of Canada, the eastern towhee chimes in from shrubbery with “drink your tea” before it drops to ground scratching among dead leaves for breakfast. Where the towhee reaches its northern limit, the hermit thrush establishes its southern breeding range and fills the air with hidden notes of a forest flutist.

For many, a mallard’s quack, Canada goose’s honk, or blue jay’s short-lived early morning “hick hick up” call will be heard near camp. If we are lucky, the rattle from a belted kingfisher’s perch will break morning silence. They patrol favored streams or lakes to find a fish fitting in size for their nature niche. 

Ephemeral spring flowers attract pollinators and astound us with memorable beauty during outdoor adventures. Sunset’s mood, frog calls, bird songs, and flowers merge to create enduring moments. We enter wilderness burden filled and go home serene and refreshed. Spiritual renewal is essential, craved, and can be found in wilderness when excursions attune with surroundings. 

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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Pandemics in Nature

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The beautiful purple loosestrife is an example of a non-native species that causes a pandemic loss of life in nature to natural species by crowding them out. Photo by Linda Wilson University of Idaho Bugwood.org.

When a species causes massive illnesses or deaths to members of another species, a pandemic is the result. Some that cause obvious and immediate economic harm receive widespread attention. The emerald ash borer that arrived in Detroit in 2002, spread rapidly killing ash trees in a widening radius. It cost communities, businesses, and private property owners billions of dollars. The financial burden gained human attention. 

The loss of an ash tree’s life did not result in the same concern caused by the loss of a human neighbor or family member to coronavirus. The death of people in China has not disturbed people in our region as much as the death of people in Washington state. People contracting the disease in Michigan created even higher concern. This is perhaps because we recognize the virus might personally make us ill or kill us. 

When the concern is not likely to kill us personally, we do not elevate actions immediately. The emerald ash borer spread as a pandemic through forests killing most ash trees. The beetle likely arrived in wood pallets and moved to live trees that had not developed evolutionary defenses. When native species are investigated and tested by other species, they develop defenses through co-evolution. One tries to feed on the new food source and the other tries to prevent being fed upon. If successful both survive by developing ecological adaptations. 

The sudden appearance of a species from another part of the world adapted to feed on a similar species, might find easy pickings when introduced to exploit a region like occurred with the ash borer. People lost trees in their yards, forests lost timber that could have been harvested, and cities found public land full of trees that presented public safety hazards. The general public took notice because of economic and safety concerns.

The loss of life of an individual tree in the yard does not bring a similar emotional response that comes with the death of a person dying next door. When the borer beetle pandemic spread, few people realized the impact on forest economics for other species. It closed the tree “restaurants” used by hundreds of other species similar to how human restaurants closed. Tree bark was home to mosses and lichens that lost their residence like business owners might lose their residences. 

People are not well attuned to the economic, social, environmental impacts that result from the successful establishment of exotic species. The stock market would fluctuate more greatly if we did. The American Chestnut blight caused economic harm and adversely affected businesses in the early 1900’s. Dutch elm disease in the 1950’s created similar devastation and had the added danger from DDT used to control the vector beetle that carried the killer fungus. Economic stress cannot be separated from environmental impacts that result in social harm that undermines community health and sustainability. Many economic woes can be traced to inadequate environmental policies. Sound environmental laws protect our economy and health.

Pandemic loss of native species is caused by more than diseases. Beautiful flowering species like purple loosestrife crowd other species from wetland habitats and remove ecosystem foundations essential for maintaining community health. Basically non-native loosestrife removes grocery stores, banks, apartments, construction warehouses, hardware stores, and pharmacies in wetland habitats needed by native species. Invasive species simplify the community and bring about instability. The long-term impact eventually harms human financial community health when we have not taken adequate care of environmental and social needs. 

Few exotic species have been addressed here. About 180 exotics are causing havoc in the Great Lakes and costs billions of dollars in damage to our economy. Two decades after zebra mussels were discovered in the Great Lakes, some scientists call the foreign mollusks the most harmful exotic species to invade the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. Zebra and quagga mussels have caused more profound changes in the lakes than sea lamprey that decimated lake trout and other native fish species in the mid-1900s. The mussels are two of 185 exotic species in the Great Lakes. About 120 of those species were imported by ocean ships that discharged ballast water from foreign ports into the lakes. Invasive species result in pandemic losses.

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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Consolidating Opposing Views

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche. By Ranger Steve Mueller

One would think scientific physical evidence would be a used to protect the family. Science cannot provide absolute definitive conclusions. Science is under constant review, testing, and modification. Concerns like human caused climate change has massive evidence indicating our activities since the mid 1800’s threatens a healthy future. That is a conclusion supported by 97 percent of climatologists using empirical evidence.

Ranger Steve Mueller

About 3 percent of scientists question if evidence is adequate. Money supporting those views is used to sway public opinion to benefit businesses with fossil fuel interests. Published scientific study evidence overwhelming supports climate change is exasperated by human activities. Most people do not read scientific articles but studies are presented in newspapers and on TV news without analytical methods described. 

How people interpret the bible determines whether “Creation Care” is addressed as our responsibility. Some people think 30 million species were taken on the ark, cared for, fed, and housed until land reappeared. Others think is it is a parable designed to illustrate or teach a truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. 

Scientists present opposing views in journals. Religions have opposing views in religious writings. Those views should be considered in their respective writings. Science and religion can complement each other. The greatest difficulty arises when we dismiss one worldview because it is not the one we want to embrace. Faith is meant to explain “why” and science is meant to explain “how.” Together they might help us understand our existence.

Currently, at the forefront of Creation Care are PFAS, lead in drinking water, and genetically modified crops with neonaticides. It appears most people do not address issues directly but leave decisions to chemical industries or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA funding and use of science is being limited and dismissed by presidential order. 

The EPA’s job was to protect our health and protect water bodies from misuse that jeopardizes community health. President Trump’s announcement to gut clean water safeguards strips away vital protections for streams and wetlands, threatens floodplain homes, endangers drinking water supplies and impairs important habitats for species aquatic nature niches that support birds, fish, ducks, and other wildlife. 

Some think when vulnerable floodplains are converted to cultivation that results in crops being destroyed and soil washed into streams, farm loss subsidies should be appropriated to help farmers. Others think when homes downstream are flooded as a result of eliminating floodplain protections that hold floodwaters and release water slowly, homeowner subsidies should help them recover losses created by upstream farming practices. 

Following the 1930’s “Dust Bowl”, practices were implemented to alleviate farming problems that resulted in soil loss from economically devastating farming. As a society, our memory is short. Conservation methods designed to help farmers are now being abandoned for those known to harm farmers and communities. 

Some Americans do not want wetlands protected on land they own or manage even if the activities harm neighbors’ and livelihoods downstream. Such issues are always difficult. People should ask themselves if they should concern themselves with “me first” verses “present and future generations first.” It is not either/or!

The landmark Clean Water Act has protected drinking water supplies, swimming spots, homes, and fishing holes from dangerous practices for nearly 50 years. Under this Act, the Clean Water Rule was established to clearly define which bodies of water are covered under this protection and they include wetlands that filter pollution, curb flooding, and streams that feed drinking water supplies. 

President Trump’s EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalized its repeal of the Clean Water Rule, jeopardizing groundwater drinking supplies for millions of Americans, streams, wetlands and homes.

The question should be whether it is morally correct and legal to damage the health and wellbeing of neighbors  for personal benefit. We should each debate in our minds our moral values and elect officials that make laws according to our conclusions. Your answer can use both religious and scientific views rather than an either/or. That is the consolidated philosophical worldview I suggest.

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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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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