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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Home Grown Natural Communities

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The Great Lakes Ecosystem is a broad term that includes 76 component natural communities within the boundaries of Michigan. A brief definition of natural community is an assemblage of plants, animals, and other life that live in similar environmental conditions governed by natural processes rather than human disturbances. 

The “natural” reference separates the communities from those significantly modified by human activity. Our activities alter natural communities in ways that allow us to support our families, but they also can degrade conditions to make it difficult or impossible for many species to survive. We can live and thrive with other species by maintaining healthy yard communities that include life beyond a narrow human focus.

Important species that we rarely notice include insects, fungi, nematodes, and microorganism. They maintain healthy living conditions essential to sustain a human population. Farm soils would not produce without a vast array of organisms that created their fertility. Insect pollinators are essential for many crops.

Many organizations work with a common vision for a sustainable future. The Nature Conservancy, land conservancies, Trout Unlimited, Izaak Walton League, National Wildlife Federation, Xerces Society, Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, hunting clubs, and a list that would continue for pages, all help. Most organizations focus on a specialized species group but all work to support natural communities supporting their interests.

To maintain a suitable living environment for people, we have national and state forests, wilderness areas, national, state, and county parks, plus a host of other shared public lands. The amount of private land ownership exceeds publicly owned land acreage. Theodore Roosevelt recognized that forests, wildlife, and watersheds were being damaged and even destroyed by human activities. He established national forests on public lands so they would be managed to maintain healthy human life conditions as a shared public resource. 

His efforts significantly benefited the health, wealth, and social wellbeing of the nation. Many people are working to eliminate publicly owned land and they want it all privately owned. President Trump wanted to sell national parks and other public lands to private owners to maximize profits instead of serving agency stated missions. His vision of privatization failed with Congress. He then opened public lands to increase resource extraction for private profits. My stance is society cannot thrive and succeed without land protected for public needs such as water. Most public lands are already open for resource extraction. Using all land for personal gain is counter to public interest. Some land needs secure nature niches for present and future generations.

Dr. Doug Tallamy has championed a concept of “bringing nature home” with his book of the same title. The book clarifies why it is essential to maintain our private yards with portions reverted to conditions that support native plants, insects, and other life. He points out that sterile manicured lawns greatly exceed land protected by national parks. We can create “private national park” living conditions to maintain essential life. Such action would enhance our own health, still be private land, and maintain the wealth of species on Earth.  

Lawns are life deserts that should be reduced if we hope to provide coming generations with a thriving social, economic, and environmental future. Eliminate any of those three and people along with all life will suffer.

Ody Brook maintains a small lawn free of pesticides and herbicides. The home yard had several mowed acres when purchased. It required excessive fuel, carbon output, and time for mowing. It was open yard to our neighbor’s house hundreds of feet away. I stopped mowing except in the vicinity of the house and trails to make easy walking in the yard. More time was spent enjoying nature. Forty years later, a forest grows between the homes providing visual privacy. Road noise in front of the house to the highway has been reduced by the presence of abundant plant life that supports more species of insects and birds than I can easily identify. 

Maintaining a natural community in your yard will help prevent an impoverished future for coming generations. 

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

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Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Wonderous, extravagant, elegant, gorgeous, attractive, dazzling, splendid, magnificent, enjoyable, and pleasant are beauty expressions captivating our attention for the New England and Frost Asters. Many asters populate the countryside but these two dominate the season. 

New England Aster. Courtesy photo.

The deep purple ray flowers of New England Asters with yellow disk flowers hold our attention better than most fall flowers except perhaps the white Frost Aster. It is not the white color that is responsible for Frost Aster’s name. It flowers in mass and makes fields glow frost white. They continue to flower after early frosts and that resulted in its name. Some other flower blooms linger into fall, but few equal these two asters.

Goldenrods brightened fields like luminous lamps through August, but most have gone to seed and turned brown by the end of September. When October arrives, the purple and white asters flourish where they serve honeybees, bumble bees, flower flies, beetles, and a host of other insects including Monarch butterflies. The nectar helps sustain migrating Monarchs on their long journey to Mexico. 

Asters have two types of flowers. At the center of the flowerhead are disk flowers that have both male and female parts. The male stamen flowers clustered on the central disk mature before the pistils. Pollen released from disk flowers is picked up on the bodies of visiting insects and carried to other asters. 

When an insect walks to the center of the flower, it picks up pollen from the disk flowers that it carries to another flower. Because disk flowers have female and male parts that mature at different times, it prevents pollen released from anthers from self-fertilizing the same plant where female flower parts mature later. Delayed development of female pistils helps avoid inbreeding. 

Colorful showy ray flowers look like petals, but each is an individual flower projecting outward from a central disk with only the female pistil and no male parts. When an insect is attracted to the petal-like ray flowers, it lands, and pollen rubs off on the pistil. The pollen from different plants fertilizes ray flowers that produce seeds creating genetic diversity. 

Visiting insects are not aware of their role in plant fertilization and seed productions. They gather food for themselves, but they are essential in aiding plants in producing future generations. We are mostly unaware of the nature niche adaptations that maintain life of insects, plants, and even us. For us the adjectives mentioned at the beginning of the article pique our interest in nature. 

Taking time to enjoy the wonder found in fields makes life worth living and brings contentment. 

Thousands of Frost Aster flowers go unnoticed by people not tuned into the world where we live. It is easy to walk by and not notice. Walk with eyes and minds open to surroundings. Notice that few asters grow in shaded woods. Most asters are early-stage succession species adapted to open sunny areas. 

There are exceptions. In the woods you will find large-leaved asters. Few of these plants flower because it is difficult to gather enough sun energy to support flowers. Like their name indicates, they have large leaves that help gather energy. Field asters have small leaves that efficiently gather sunlight energy. The smaller leaves conserve water and prevent desiccation. Look closely and notice “hairy” leaves that help maintain high humidity near the leaf surface. It reduces evaporation.  

Frost and New England Asters are two captivating fall wildflowers. Careful observation will reveal many aster species that enhance seasonal enjoyment. 

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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Warm red flannels

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Amazing methods for surviving cold weather abound in nature. Cedar Springs became famous by spreading warm red flannels around the world. Humans are not endowed with adaptations for cold climates. Fortunately, we have devised many ways to create a tropical climate around our bodies. Homes are heated to tropical temperatures. We clothe to hold heat between clothing and skin so that a tropical environment exists in the that narrow space even when we venture into freezing outdoor temperatures.

Mammals are changing summer coats to winter coats. Their underfur thickens in fall, but it is not waterproof. Outer guard hairs have oils that repel water. The number of underfur hairs increases, producing dead air space to hold warm air near the body. Opossums do not produce a thick under underfur and become vulnerable to killing cold. Their tails are especially at risk for frostbite. 

Birds produce insulating down feathers for winter and they are protected from getting wet by contour feathers that cover their bodies. At the base of the bird’s tail is an uropygial or preening gland that produces oil retrieved with the bill to spread on contour feathers. This water repellant keeps feathers dry in wet weather. Ducks as well as songbirds use the oil to prevent down feathers from becoming waterlogged and losing the ability to provide warm dead air space. 

Insects have a variety of adaptations to maintain their species until summer arrives. Most wasps freeze to death after the first few hard frosts, but the queen leaves the nest and finds a log to crawl under or some other protected place. There she survives the winter to lay eggs and begin a new colony in the spring. 

Viceroy butterflies lay eggs that hatch in late summer and the tiny caterpillars use silk to attach a willow or aspen leaf to a branch. The minute caterpillar hibernates hidden and suspended in the curled leaf until spring. Woolly Bear caterpillars are seen walking about on warm fall days. They hibernate in secluded locations like leaf litter until spring conditions warm and encourage plant growth. It is good to allow fallen leaves to remain instead of burning or hauling them away. The caterpillars in spring continue feeding and development. A white winged Woolly Bear adult moth will emerge from the pupa in summer to begin a new cycle. Many aquatic insects, like dragonflies, winter as larvae in streams with some adult dragonflies, like darners, migrating south.

June beetle grubs burrow below the frost line in the ground. In 1985 our dog, Ody Brook, died and we buried him in January. Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary was named after him in 1979. A fire was built with a reflector to direct heat downward to thaw the ground. It was a cold winter and the frost line was deep. We dug the grave and found a large white June beetle grub four feet deep at the bottom of the grave. Had the beetle only dug three feet deep, it likely would have frozen. 

Trees do not maintain heat to survive winter but have special nature niche adaptations. They remove most of the water from cells to prevent cells from bursting when water freezes. If the cells retained water, it would expand and rupture killing plant tissues. Trees must maintain their trunks and branches so they move water to roots and that usually protects them from frost damage. The rich sugar water antifreeze prevents freezing. Desiccation in winter can kill tissues. Bud scales help prevent bud tissue from over drying by covering delicate tissues until spring. The above ground portion of herbaceous perennial plants dies but living tissue survives in the ground. New spring growth arises from underground tissues. Annual plants die except for the seeds that carry new life to spring. 

Wear red flannels and survive until spring. Enjoy Red Flannel Festival October 2 in Cedar Springs.

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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Summer Butterfly Counts 2021

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Four West Michigan Butterfly Association (WMBA) count summaries are posted in Table 1 for 2021. It shows species and individual numbers vary among count circles. Variance is due to count dates, weather, and varying habitats. We visit a good representation of habitats in each count circle. 

Fifty species were observed on the four counts. That is about 1/3 of all Michigan species. At the bottom of the Table, notice the species totals and individual numbers for each count. Included are the immature butterfly life cycle stages found as egg, larva, or chrysalis. Click here to download table

Of particular interest is number of individuals for the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. West Michigan is one of richest remaining habitats for the species on Earth. It has been extirpated from nearly all previously known habitats. There is concerted effort to help this species survive. The process helps improve habitat for mammals and birds that people enjoy for watching and hunting. Habitat protection supports healthier water supplies. Federal laws protecting endangered species support healthier local economies and living conditions for people and wildlife.

Plan on participating in the 2022 WMBA 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. 

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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Tracks and gaits

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Walking barefoot along sunlit beaches warms us. We enjoy making toe prints in firm damp quartz sand. Waves dampen the shore holding tracks firm. Farther inland, loose sand does not keep footprints well. 

Sanderling shorebirds leave tiny three-toed prints instead of four-toed depressions. The species lacks a hind toe to mark its steps. Some birds walk with one foot in front of the other making a straight row. Watch animal movements to notice their gait. Some birds hop with both feet landing next to the other. 

Photo of rabbit tracks in the snow. 
Photo from Wildlife Illinois.

Mammals such as rabbits and squirrels create similar footprint patterns. The imprint shows the track shape, but placement identifies their gait movement. Rabbits bound with their front feet landing with one foot forward of the other. Their hind feet land in front of the forefeet. The hind feet swing wide of front legs by going around them. Look at the imprint in a light fresh snow that will soon come our way. It appears two small feet are behind two large feet. When a rabbit is standing, we see small front feet ahead of the larger hind feet. When hopping, their gait is different than a standing rabbit by having hind feet landing in ahead the front feet. 

One would expect the front feet to be in front of the hind feet, but their gait creates a different pattern.  

Squirrels move in a similar manner and when the track cluster of four feet is observed, we see hind feet ahead of front feet. Squirrels and rabbits tracks can be difficult to separate when they are nearly the same size. Rather than look solely at the track shape or gait pattern, look where they travel. Squirrels frequently run to a tree and climb so their trail ends. Rabbits go around the tree and continue their trail. This is part of their nature niche movement.

Gait patterns change at different speeds, and feet hitting the ground make varying sounds. 

When horseback riding one hears a comforting clickity click of walking feet. Our hips sway forward and back with each step. On a trotting horse we tend to bounce rapidly, and this is usually the most uncomfortable riding gait. We can post up and down to avoid the pounding on our back or we can relax limply in the saddle to sit more tightly. This can be difficult at various trot speeds. With practice, I have learned to sit a trot, but I am far from an outstanding rider and bounce more than desired.

When the horse changes a gait to a canter, it becomes easier to avoid the jarring bounce but only with practice. At a slow canter one frequently separates from the saddle and lands with a repeated thud. Instead of the rapid pounding that occurs during a trot, a slower and larger pounding occurs. As the canter gait hastens, the rate of pounding accelerates. To eliminate the bounce, one may use leg movement in the stirrups to lift and settle one’s body in rhythm with the horse’s gait. This is the most frequent method used. 

I usually ride with pressure in the stirrups to adjust more easily to the canter bounce. When I do not use stirrups, I allow my body to relax and sit more tightly during the horse’s canter gait. This becomes more difficult when the horse changes canter speed or slows rapidly. I tend to slide forward onto the horse’s neck without stirrup aid. On some horses, it is essential to keep weight in stirrups because of their unpredictability. A favorite horse I rode in the park service would suddenly startle and shy to one side for no apparent reason. If no pressure was maintained in the stirrups, one would end on the ground. 

That horse’s gait provided a most comfortable ride and was always my choice of horses. Other rangers did not like its nervous shying, so they usually rode one the other horses. Getting to know an animal’s gait makes for a smoother ride. It is rare for a horse to break into a gallop. It is like a person running a 100-meter dash. One’s muscles and lungs exhaust quickly. The few times I have been on a galloping horse, the sound changes from the thumpity thump of a canter to the drum roll of the gallop gait. The ride also becomes smooth like a walking gait. It is both exhilarating and frightening to move at that speed. Enjoy observing wild animal tracks and gaits.

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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Katydid, grasshopper, and cricket songs

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller  

Night sounds abound in late summer through early fall. We can open windows now that excessive heat has waned, nights are less humid, and longer. Not long ago it was light until 10 p.m. and now the sky is darkening by 8:30. On September 22, the sun will reach the fall equinox creating 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark everywhere on the planet. Songs will fill the air before bedtime and let you know life abounds. 

Life’s activity is in high mode. Birds are migrating, deer are entering the rut, monarchs are migrating, and some mammals are busy getting ready for a long winter’s retreat. Some hibernate and are hurrying to add fat for a long sleep while others are gathering and storing food to sustain them through desolate winter months. 

Varied strategies are needed to survive the cold, but most insects enter diapause. Diapause is when life activities are on hold until temperatures become conducive for movement. A few like darner dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico to spend the winter in cold mountains hibernating. 

Most insects overwinter as eggs, larva, or pupae but a few grasshoppers survive winter as partially developed nymphs. We can recognize grasshopper nymphs from adults by the lack of fully developed wings. They can jump but cannot fly. Most grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids in the order Orthoptera survive the winter as eggs. In your home, an adult cricket might survive the winter in the warmth you provide. 

There are about 30 cricket species in Michigan. They produce some of the most beautiful music for the order. Songs are not produced by all cricket species. If you are trying to sleep, you might not appreciate cricket courtship songs. The song is produced by the insect moving a sharp edge of one wing against a file like ridge on a thickened leathery upper wing covering. They are mostly night active as are most katydids. Katydids produce sound in a similar manner to crickets but are not as musical. They do not find resources to survive indoors. 

Crickets eat insect eggs, fly pupae, aphids, soft bodied insects, soft fruit, and plant foliage. Some of those can be found in your home. Katydids look somewhat like grasshoppers but remain mostly hidden in vegetation and restrain activity until dark. The most telling difference between grasshoppers and katydids is the antennae length. Grasshoppers have short antennae and katydids have antennae that are longer than their body. They are often referred to as “long-horn grasshoppers.”  

Most of us are familiar with the appearance of “field crickets” but many crickets have unique appearances. Even for those that recognize the black field cricket, there are two species that cannot be told apart by appearance. The spring field cricket becomes active about May 20 and ends its season by July 6. The fall field cricket is active most years from July 15 to November 11. My college professor, Dr. Roger Bland, published the book Orthoptera of Michigan through MSU Extension. It is wonderfully illustrated and is the only book representing a state. Regional books are available, but his work can acquaint you with Michigan species.  

Go out in the evening to listen to some of Michigan’s 33 katydid species. They will be among the vegetation where they resemble living or dead leaves. Most in our region are green. Like crickets and grasshoppers, they have jumping hind legs. At this time of year, they can fly but rarely do unless disturbed. They eat leaves, flowers, and pollen but it is their sound that captures our attention. Like the crickets they produce sound by stridulation when they rub one wing against another. 

Sound attracts mates so katydids must hear. Both sexes have auditory organs found at the base of front leg tibia. Michigan’s 61 species of grasshoppers have hearing tympana located at the base of their abdomen. Crickets “ears” are located like those of katydids on the front legs. Begin exploring to find the state’s 124 Orthoptera.

Many have heard we can determine the temperature by counting Snowy Tree Cricket chirps for 15 seconds and then adding 40. The Orthoptera have fascinating nature niches and behaviors that will teach the observant. 

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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Trees dancing in the wind

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Karen finds greater joy in watching violent storms than me. I am a nervous sort who worries about the dangers. Trees waving branches every which way with some cast away gives me safety concerns. 

Once when camping, we heard a train roaring straight down a stretch of river toward our camp in wild country. We were the only campers in that campground. Friends were meeting us there the next day. 

When the roaring train reached us, it ripped the rainfly from the tent and flattened the fiberglass poles against us in our sleeping bags momentarily pinning us to the ground. It was a thrilling experience for both Karen and me. Her thrill was positive and mine full of fear. We did not anticipate a violent wind or storm in the middle of the night. Before erecting the tent, I had not checked the area to make sure no trees were unstable that might fall on us. Having our friends find us squashed under a heavy tree was not how we wanted them to greet us. 

When the wind passed, I sprang from the tent and ran through the pouring rain to capture our rainfly that had blown into the woods. Though ripped, we were able to secure it over our tent. The sudden straight-line windstorm came and passed quickly. Afterwards, we laid wet visiting in our sleeping bags and soon drifted back to sleep. 

Morning brought calm with bright sun. The following nights were peacefully quiet with friends. Karen shared the joyous excitement about the storm, and I shared anxiety. Wildlife seek protection during storms and at times experience disaster. 

A friend rescued flying squirrels from a hollow tree that blew down and killed the mother. Another friend found a nest of dead Baltimore Orioles whose pendulous nest crashed to the ground in heavy wind. Many stories are told about the trial’s wildlife experience during storms. Most of us never learn about them. What we hear about are the impacts of storms and power outages affecting our lives. News broadcasters make sure we hear about homes being washed away in Tennessee floods, communities destroyed by hurricanes, and towns burned to the ground in western wildfires. 

It is no wonder I am fearful of storm violence. They can be beautiful to watch but are frightening. This week a brief storm disturbed our lives. Power was lost with refrigerator/freezer items put in danger. We prefer power outages in winter when we can maintain home heat with the fireplace and relocate refrigerator items outside. Freezer items are still in jeopardy because it rarely is cold enough outdoors to match freezer temperatures. 

Wildlife work their best to find adequate shelter to wait out a storm, fire, or flood. Survivors pick up where they left off and continue life. We are devastated by losing our past when possessions are destroyed. We have friends that lost all pictures and family heirlooms in fires. Thankfully, they lost no family members. 

The most recent storm toppled a dead ash tree in the back yard where a hummingbird maintained a favored perch. Eastern Wood Peewees used the bare tree branches as scouting roosts to fly from to capture insects. It has been several years since emerald ash borers killed the tree. A friend asked if I wanted him to cut it down. I said no because I knew it would become a wonderful place for birds to land and for me to easily observe them from the back porch. It was far enough from the house that I did not need to worry about it falling and damaging our residence. 

A dead black cherry served a similar purpose for almost twenty years before it fell. Living trees are flexible and dance in the wind. Listening to the breeze rustle leaves is stimulating. Even after death the trees continue to brighten our lives by providing places for wildlife on their branches or in hollow trunks. Not enough dead trees stand for cavity nesting animals. Hollow live trees generally provide greater tree strength and serve as neighborhood residences. Allow as many live and dead trees to stand as possible. 

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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The Sitting tree

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Where is your special place? It might be distant across the continent or perhaps in your backyard. Hopefully you have many in varied locations. For me I refer to Bryce Canyon National Park as my Eden of Earth. Alternately there are special locations in Northern Minnesota, Northern Michigan, and at Ody Brook. 

In our Old Fallow Field. the sitting tree is an apple tree that is perhaps as old as me. One branch that extends south from the trunk low above the ground has a waiting seat. About 15 feet from the stout trunk, the branch dips down and back up making a comfortable seat to ponder life’s important things.

What is important is the sky, breeze, shades of green in summer or grays and browns in winter. It is a place to avoid the troubles of the world. There are enough troubles right here to deal with. Will rabbits become too abundant and girdle trees and shrubs or are there enough coyotes to keep their numbers within ecological niche carrying capacity? Some people do not appreciate coyotes, but I like the work they do. 

Will any of the two dozen polyphemus silk moth caterpillars I released in early August survive to adulthood and show their beautiful wings next summer. Adults have about two weeks as adults to complete their mating and egg laying. Most silk moths have one brood annually. The egg hatches, caterpillars feed in summer, cocoons develop for overwintering, and in spring or early summer the adults emerge for important reproductive work. As adults, their mouth parts are non-functional. The adult life span is limited by how much fat has been stored. 

Other important things to contemplate are leaf arrangements. Some plants have leaves directly opposite one another with the set above diverging at a 180º angle from the twig. This allows sunlight to more easily reach the leaf set below. For many plants the leaves come off the stem at lesser angles beginning a spiral pattern for leaves directly above. It is a different way for leaves to allow sunlight to reach leaves lower on the stem. 

The sitting tree is one my grandson Walden likes to visit. The branch seat is still too high for him. The tree’s lower branches are at a good height for his climbing access. I can rest in the sitting tree and contemplate what might interest him in coming years while he is busy attending the important business of tree climbing.

Shel Silverstein wrote about an apple giving tree and throughout its life it gave all it could to a man from his boyhood to old age. Finally, when the man was old and needed little, the tree still gave him a place for sitting on its dead stump. I recommend parents read this book to their children. It is a great reason for a family adventure to the local library or a bookstore. Kids like stories read over and over. The Giving Tree is good for that purpose.

At Ody Brook two pines grew at the wood’s edge in the backyard. The deep shade under needled branches provided a great place for our girls to build a fort on a bed of thick needles. It was a special place for them and remains special in their memories even though the two trees no longer stand. In their place are two tall red oaks that have filled the space once occupied by pines.

Special places should be discovered by explorers, and they will be different for each person. One does not need to be young to discover a special place. When I was young a sitting tree was not important. Now with older age and cancer such a tree has gained significance. 

I tire quickly but at times have adequate energy to walk longer distances. Sometimes it is a struggle, so I have chairs, benches, and log seats for resting along Ody Brook’s trails. August has been a challenging month and I have not been able to walk to the sitting tree, but I know it is there waiting for me. You are welcome to come walk Ody Brook’s trails and find a special place. Interpretive signs line the trails.

Whether you wish to pursue fall warblers, trees, autumn flowers, or gloriously beautiful insects, come enjoy. 

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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Canoeing and Herons

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

Taking to open water in a kayak or canoe can be a quiet pleasurable wildlife encounter. There are liveries in Rockford and Newaygo for easy floats on the Rogue or Muskegon rivers. For those with their own vessels the opportunities are greater for one can put in and taken out at various locations. A bit farther away one can kayak the Glass River from the Michigan Audubon Otis Sanctuary in Barry County near Hastings. Going north to canoe the Pine River for a challenge or Little Manistee with more moderate water in the Cadillac region. Canoeing the Les Cheneaux Islands in northern Lake Huron can provide a protected paddle on big water where the islands help calm waves. I am not after the thrill of white caps or white water but seek wildlife instead.  

Karen and I enjoy quiet calm wildlife viewing on our trips. When I was a teenager, our church youth group goal was splashing, dumping, and cooling on a hot summer’s day but our family paddles were quiet and wildlife oriented. Boy scout trips were longer and included overnight camping. 

An American bittern, a wading bird that’s part of the heron family. 

A most mysterious experience in my life was while camping along the Rifle River on a scout trip. That night we heard large bubbles emanating from deep within the earth. For several years I heard the unnerving sound with no clue to its origin, but it seemed extraterrestrial. The sound has become considerably less frequent but can be heard in scattered locations when one is near a sizable marsh. The maker is the American Bittern, a bird in the heron family. I have heard it described as a thunder bird because of its sound but more frequently it is described as sounding like a water pump. I prefer the bubble description.

Other herons are croakers and the last time Julianne, Charlie, Karen, and I canoed together we heard and saw both Green and Great Blue Herons. Many ducks paddled along near the shore at a distance. Belted Kingfishers made their rattle call as they flew ahead or back over us in route to favorite fishing locations on their family’s river claim. Choice locations for kingfishers include sandy bluffs where they dig six-foot-deep nesting tunnels in the bank. 

A bit harder to see without binoculars are warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows that sing vibrant songs along shrubby or forested shores. They are present because mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, and many other insects have found healthy nature niches. It is always a joy to watch the aerial excellence of common whitetails, darners, and baskettail dragonflies capturing insects. We avoid disturbing fly anglers as we float past with our paddles held stationary. They cast special handmade flies in hopes of a good sparring with a fish before releasing it back so the fish can capture the real insect being imitated at the end of an angler’s line. It the stream is not catch and release, the fish might become a great human meal.

I like to paddle near shore to see many butterfly species nectaring on a host of beautiful flowers. Joe Pye Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and other flowers abound in August. Bird watching in May and June is best when bird song peaks and they are easier to see. We like August because it is warm, usually sunnier, and biting insects have subsided. A monthly, weekly, or even daily canoe venture would be nice. If only I could live a thousand lives at once to explore a thousand outdoor adventures in a thousand different nature niches simultaneously.  

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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Nosy business

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Busy bodies abound. Not everything sticks its nose into our business. Many wildlife are keenly aware of danger based on smell. People and possibly some predators know to stay downwind of wildlife, so prey do not catch their scent. When I approach deer from upwind, my scent drifts toward them. I do not think I smell but I do.

Browsing deer lift their heads and look in my direction, expecting to see motion. I stand still and cautiously move when they were not looking. Frequently a deer will raise its head to scan for danger. Sometimes their white flag is raised and slowly lowered. When too nervous, deer either bound away or causally walk off.

Once I approached a winter herd and deer frequently looked my direction. Soon two deer came bounding toward the herd from behind me and breezed past without noticing my presence. Close behind were two dogs in pursuit and they were running straight for me. I was still as a tree but became alarmed thinking they saw me and decided I was prey. Upon closer approach, they abruptly turned to continue deer pursuit. They ran through the deer herd without noticing it. The herd stood fast. In the area I found a dead deer previously killed by dogs.

There is good reason dogs and cats should not be allowed to roam freely unattended. Cats stalk wildlife in my yard and through the sanctuary. The American Bird Conservancy states outdoor cats in the United States alone kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including those at risk of extinction, such as the Piping Plover that is federally endangered.

Cats and natural predators use their noses, in addition to eyes, when searching for prey. Predation is instinctive and beneficial in controlling wildlife populations, but free roaming non-native species like cats are harmful for maintaining healthy nature niches in ecosystems.

Not all species smell with noses. Insects smell with feet and antennae. When a butterfly lands on a plant, it recognizes the plant by smell sensed through its feet. When searching for a proper plant for egg laying, it uses its “nose feet.” If the plant is a correct species, a butterfly might possibly lay an egg on it.

On the West Michigan Butterfly Association count, we saw a Viceroy land on an aspen and lay an egg on a leaf. We have witnessed the same on willow. Both plants are in Salicaceae family with similar chemical scent. I am not the only thing that smells. Odor is essential. Many plants have developed scents that protect them from being eaten. Mints, mustards, and most plants have chemical scents that aid their survival. We might like the smell of mints and even its flavor in foods, but its chemical smell is a defensive mechanism.

Insects are repelled by most plant scents and offspring will die eating the vegetation. There are always exceptions and various species have developed the ability to survive eating plants despite their chemical defenses. A handful of species evolved ways to neutralize the chemicals in selected plants or ways to tolerate them. This limits the number of organisms able to eat any one species. It allows for both plant and insect survival.

Monarchs lay eggs on milkweeds that have strong chemical defensives. The caterpillar will bite the main leaf vein that feeds the leaf. When a caterpillar feeds on a leaf, the plant sends extra defense chemical to protect the leaf but because the main vein into the leaf has been severed, it cannot increase its chemical defense.

The Monarch incorporates some of the plant chemical into its body and becomes protected from many predators that find it too untasteful. Birds will even become sick and vomit after eating one. They learn to avoid orange insects. The bright aposematic orange color announces a defensive taste the butterfly stole from the milkweed.

Smell is a fabulous sense that is better than sight, hearing, taste, and touch in some ways. Enjoy nosy business.

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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