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Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

It is time to break free from our restrictive indoor dens to explore the lengthening days outside. Twelve hours of light and darkness signal lengthening daylight and we recognized March 17 as the time to adjust schedules for an extra hour for outdoor evening exploring. Daylight saving time provides opportunity to hit golf eggs in hopes of finding an adult “golf” to retrieve the egg and take it to safety. Golfers have not succeeded.

Beside the ribbons of fairways, shrub and forest woodland animals anxiously explore nature niche habitats for food after long winter nights secluded in den darkness. Like many mammals, we feel hostage to the confines of walls for months. Snow maintained a foot of cover to peoples joy or dismay depending on whether we chose to explore or be confined to indoor safety. Many went north to snowmobile the UP’s deep snow and beauty.

We maintain warm temperature and light in our home dens during winter’s cold darkness. Wild mammals hole up underground in dark seclusion, waiting. As warming spring weather approached, we found ourselves cast into a burrowing winter mammal’s lifestyle when sleet coated tree branches with glazing beauty. Nearly 100,000 people in our region experienced isolation and darkness that skunks, chipmunks, and opossums experience daily. Trees and shrubs snapped breaking power lines that maintain summer-like indoor conditions for us. Lights out and heat off for a day to a week disrupted routines and let us know we are part of nature’s whims.

During March, we smelled a skunk exploring the neighborhood as it searched to discover if spring arrived. Opossum tracks indicated inspection of our compost pile for morsels of nourishment but it found cottontails that remained active all winter scarfed usable vegetables. Mice, vole, and weasel tracks traverse the snow surface leading from tunnel exit to entrance along regularly traveled runways. Occasional coyote and fox tracks traverse wide ranging routes and become more frequent as spring approaches. Hairy black stringy scat identifies that canine predators protect young trees from bark girdling rabbits that would kill trees if left in abundance to gnaw succulent tissues where sap has begun to flow. 

Sap flow is evident by the formation of sapsickles where they drip from sun-warmed branches that cracked or snapped during the ice storm. Dripping sap exposed to cold air freezes and I cannot resist enjoying the sweet taste of spring. Sapsickles are shared with squirrels, chickadees, titmice, and a variety of birds seeking early spring treats when snow still lies deep. Trees have awakened even though they continue a dead appearance until April, when buds swell and early flowers bloom on silver and red maples proving spring has arrived.

To see the earliest blooms of the year, one must explore inside the spathes of skunk cabbage, where minute yellow flowers pepper the club-like spadix on these floodplain plants. Skunk cabbage produces heat that prevents freezing of its flowers. Tiny insects find the maroon spathes and take shelter during cold nights until winter conditions wane. If you happen to step on one while exploring, the odor clues to the source of its name.

Red-tailed hawks have paired and nest near forest edges. Nest 2019-1 is the first active nest noticed this year. Adults sit on tree branches along open fields and flash crimson tail feathers when circling grassland hunting grounds. Similar appearing Rough-legged hawks have a white band at the base of a dark tail, a broader dark band across the belly, whiter head, and longer wings lacking the dark ribbon along the leading wing edge. Roughlegs winter here but depart with spring’s approach to find the best breeding sites in the far north. 

We seldom view Barred, Great Horned, or Eastern Screech Owls that work winter night shifts but we hear them when most mammals venture forth in the cover and safety of darkness. When fortunate, we see a screech owl peering from a nest cavity at dusk while waiting for the safety of darkness to hunt with less chance of being eaten if it ventures out too early. It might become evening dinner for a Cooper’s Hawk when it is still light. 

Night activity is the rule for most mammals. Rising hormone levels, longer daylight hours, diminished fat, and warm weather work together to drive denning animals to explore the countryside. You are a mammal. Explore.

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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