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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Fins and Fish Scales

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I wonder how often fish-eating birds experience a bloody digestive tract when eating. If a fish spine has not drawn blood on your hand, you likely have not fished. I am a bit clumsy with my hands but other anglers I know have given blood to a fish. 

I have watched a Belted Kingfisher catch a small fish, carry it to a tree branch and spend several minutes beating it against the branch. I have wondered why. Perhaps the kingfisher is making sure it is dead so when swallowed, a wiggling fish does not pierce its innards with a sharp fin ray. Great Blue Herons carefully manipulate prey so they are swallowed headfirst. This makes the fins lay flat so they do not poke their esophagus in route to the stomach. 

Note the various fins on the rainbow trout. Photo in the public domain.

Scales and thin skin function to protect the fish from injury and infection much like our skin protects us. Scales are attached to the body from the headend and point backwards. The orientation allows water to flow easily with little friction or resistance. In addition to scale protection, fish are covered with a slippery slime that protects them from bacterial and other infections.

Scales are a beautiful sight that most of us miss. In a recent article I mentioned carrying a hand lens in my pocket to use when wanting a close look at small objects. Using a magnifying lens allows examination of different types of scale shapes, sizes, and colors. I seldom concentrate on those fascinating features. I am most interested in fish age compared to size. Scales, like tree growth rings, indicate approximate age. During the warm growing season, a fish adds a ring but two could be added if seasonal growth is interrupted for some reason. 

A reason anglers have been poked by fin rays is because the slime makes a fish difficult to hold. Bravo for the skill of fish-eating birds holding them. Birds like osprey capture fish with talons instead of their beaks like is done by birds in the heron family. 

In addition to sharing thanks and remembrance for others on Memorial Day, we venture with family and friends to lakes and streams to fish for food, fun, friendship, and to find solace and inspiration among nature niches.

It was not fish that interested me most. The early morning calm lake surface that changes to ripples or even waves holds my attention. Views into the depths where plants anchor themselves are of interest not only to me but fish. A favorite fishing lake had a river enter from the north and exit to the south. We would take our rowboat into the river to explore favorite hiding places where fish waited to dart after passing prey. If we cast and handled our lures properly, we enjoyed a good struggle for a coming meal. Often fish measured under the size limit but that was fine with me. I prefer to release most.

When taking a fish off the hook, I examine the membranous fins that have hard and soft spines. On the back are dorsal fins. The front one has hard spines and the rear ones are soft. The presence and character of each varies among types of fish. Along the body line are other unpaired single fins called the tail or caudal fin and anal fin.

Paired fins on the sides of the body are called pectoral and pelvic. The pectoral are behind the gill cover opercula. One can watch the opercula pulsate in and out as water is taken in through the mouth, passed over the gills, and released. Pelvic fins are in the lower rear area of the body. A special type fin, called the adipose fin, is present in trout and some others. It is small, soft, and spineless in front of the tail on the upper back. 

When fishing and waiting for a panfish to strike, examine the fins and scales of bass, pike, trout, and panfish in your catch with a hand lens. I am not a patient angler so I fish for larger game fish where I keep casting and reeling in my chosen lure. Watching a bobber is great for many but not me. Time in a boat allows more than surface ripple watching. We enjoy the shoreline contour, trees, clouds, and movement in the sky. Sounds abound to let us know we are alive. Do not miss the surrounding wonder. That is the reason for being 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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Fall’s rival

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Early May colors compete with October colors. Plants do not try to outdo themselves at different times of the year. It is us that takes notice of the brilliant shades of green. In fall we anticipate reds and yellows mixed with greens and plan travel during cool dry air temperatures suited for wearing jackets. 

During the first half of May, the long-awaited call to get outdoors begs us to notice changes we have been longing to witness during the first weeks of spring when the sun crossed the equator and daylight hours increased. Longer sun hours warm the soil and start plants shipping stored sugars and water through stems beginning in February. Maple sugar enthusiasts tap trees in the final weeks of winter so they do not miss the surge of concentrated sugars feeding buds. 

It is not until after the spring equinox that most ephemerals bloom to provide us with the first flash of greens and flower colors. Under bare tree branches, the forest floor brightens our days with hepaticas, spring beauties, trout lilies, spring cress, and an array of other early blooms. They are followed by large-flowered trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, marsh marigolds, and wood anemones. 

Small trees like serviceberry are covered with white blossoms in late April and they lose petals as choke cherry white flowers open in May. The rapid change is enticing. More subtly, a mid-May color pageant progresses with greater splendor than the showy bright end of the color spectrum evident in fall. 

Leaves pop from buds but remain small and unnoticed during frosty spring weather. When warmth finally arrives, leaves expand faster than they can grow. They fill like water balloons in a few short days and work vigorously to build leaf tissues inside by filling them with structural substance. Feel newly expanded leaves to notice how delicate they remain during their first days. Spring winds tear some from branches but most cling to branches as they ready for summer’s work of photosynthesis and tree growth. 

Fresh from the bud, leaves vary across the color spectrum. Tiny leaf cells that rested under protective bud scales all winter were ready for their spring work once conditions became suitable. Nearly empty of water, the embryonic leaves were free of damage from freezing temperatures in cold winter months. Once they are freed from buds and fill with water, they become vulnerable to late frost damage. The frail cells full of water easily burst when water freezes in them. When massive damage occurs the plant must use vital stored resources to produce a new set of leaves. When flowers are frozen they are not regenerated for this year’s fruit production. They must wait another year to produce seeds. During a tree’s decades of life, it needs to only produce one offspring that will mature and reproduce to replace it in order to maintain a stable population. Usually tens of thousands of little trees start life but most do not survive. When many do an expanding forest ensues. 

The spring forest rivals fall colors with greatness unequalled. Tiny new leaves arrive with red anthocyanin pigment that serves as a sunscreen protecting tissues from sunburn. Notice new leaf color as buds open to release new growth. It does not take long before they green to uncountable shades. Lime green on aspens equals their joyful fall yellow. Deep dark green pines stand near aspens contrasting with spring’s fresh shades. Wild cherries hold a lingering maroon in leaves as they gain full size to produce a fuller deep green. 

Sassafras grows in open sunlight clusters to create a green unlike other trees. In nearby open areas, new aspen seedlings that do not thrive in shade start clones that spread underground and produce new shoots. One can recognize different genetic clones by seeing annual leaf out times for separate clones and different fall color change times. Trees in each clone are genetically identical and leaf out at the same time. It is not when leaves appear from buds that amazes us most. Their color among the green backdrop of other trees rivals the best fall colors. Trees like sugar maples, hickories, and oaks follow in sequences with their initial reds followed by green mosaics creating a spotted countryside. Each species contributes to the variety of green shades and individual trees have unique nature niche adaptations that are special to them in the same manner each of us is special. 

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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Buck rub scar grows

This Aspen shows scars from when it was young and used as a buck rub. 

During the fall rut, bucks battle with small trees and shrubs. They use flexible woody plants that give and take when attacked and that helps strengthen deer neck muscles. Deer are easily agitated during the breeding season. A local newspaper reported a person being gored and killed when he entered the pen with a pet deer. 

Buck rubs on saplings announce a sight and sound presence. Deer trails meander through forests, fields, and shrublands where small trees show evidence of being scraped or destroyed by antlers. During summer, antlers grow when calcium and phosphorous are deposited from blood vessels in the “velvet” skin that covers them. A common shrub growing in the area is called staghorn sumac because its branches have a soft tan velvet covering like the soft skin growing on antlers. 

By fall when antlers are fully grown, blood vessels in the velvet skin begin to dry and itch. Deer rub the itchy dying skin against small trees or shrubs that are usually less than two inches in diameter. Larger deer might rub flexible woody stems 3 inches in diameter or sometimes larger. With short tempers, deer spar with woody plants in preparation for breeding. They strip life giving bark from plants. Many scarred stems survive. Now that winter is behind us, we can find buck rub trees and shrubs before spring obscures stems with leaves. 

Resilient plants strive to live. If the phloem and xylem in the bark cambium carrying water and nutrients is not completely destroyed, the sugars and nutrients continue to flow to roots and upward in spring stems. 

The tree will continue to grow and scars will become more evident. We find similar evidence of bark damage when someone carves initials in bark. If the damage is not too severe, the tree lives and the initials increase in size as the tree ages. Accompanying photo 1 shows an aspen that was used as a buck rub when it was small. It survived and grew. Today, we can see the growing dark scars and smoother lighter undamaged bark. 

Ranger Steve is shown here measuring the diameter of a tree trunk that was used as a buck rub years ago. 

Photo 2 shows me using a “diameter at breast height” (DBH) measuring tape. The tape is marked every 3.14 inches to represent one inch in diameter. Pi is 3.14 inches and when circled so the tape ends touch, it equals one-inch diameter. The reason DBH refers to diameter at breast height is because that is the standard height of 4.5 feet foresters use when conducting forest surveys. Make a DBH tape at home with kids using adding machine tape rolls. Remember each 3.14-inch marking equals one-inch diameter when the tape is wrapped around a tree. Create the tape long enough to measure large trees. Measure trees in the yard and neighborhood and identify which species are the largest and oldest.

I am pictured measuring the diameter of the lower trunk because that is the height where the buck rubbed his antlers. They usually scrape velvet from antlers between one and two feet above ground. One can somewhat determine how large a deer is by the height of the buck rub above ground.

Notice how wide the scars have grown with tree size over the years since the buck rubbed antlers on the sapling. The DBH for this scarred tree is now 9.5 inches in diameter. Bucks will not use a tree this large as a buck rub. 

There are many activities for families during this time when classroom education has been replaced with alternatives because of Covid-19 closures. Teachers are working long hours to engage students with remote education opportunities that blend science, language arts, math, social studies, art, music, and more. Education continues but requires parents willing to work with kids to engage them in fruitful learning. Teachers regularly work long hours but the current remote education challenge has extended their work week hours. 

Nature niche education is good for integrating meaningful multidisciplinary real-world applications outdoors. It can include exploring the neighborhood for buck rubs, learning a variety of musical bird songs, discovering the tempo of frog calls, drawing tree growth silhouettes, investigating insect pollinators and writing narratives. Now is a wonderful time for rich integrated learning where parents and children learn together with teacher remote guidance.

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 Chase

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The chase is on and soon all will pass us but not leave us behind. Spring arrives and disappears before we barely have a chance to revel in its joy and beauty. One does not need to leave the yard to capture exquisite wonder that will create a yearn for the coming of next spring when this one concludes. 

Hoary Bittercress in massive abundance has made the yard rich with tiny white flowers. Most people do not see them when walking through the yard. The tiny mustard is stepped on without thought except by those seeking to discover. This Eurasian species was first collected in southwest Michigan in 1976 and has spread across southern Michigan and has been found as far north as Mackinac Bridge. 

I am not aware of this minuscule four petaled white flowering plant disrupting the lives of native species but perhaps it does or will. Its small flowers are most enjoyed with a magnifying lens often referred to as a loop or hand lens. In my pocket the lens rests quietly until some little being I cannot see well without enlargement begs attention. Out pops the lens and the chase is on to see the delicate details before they are gone with the season. 

Soon the tiny white petals fall after having served the purpose of attracting pollinators that must be almost too small to see. I should lay by the flowers to see who visits the blooms. The flowers have six stamens with four long ones and two short ones. Using a hand lens to discover special characteristics that remain hidden from us, we can enter their tiny world. 

Once pollinated, the flower transforms from an almost invisible delicate white beauty to long slim green unnoticeable seed pods. This species has only been in the area about half of my lifetime and people will hire companies to eliminate it from the neighborhood so they will have a “perfect lawn”. 

At Ody Brook I discourage nonnative species from displacing native plants, insects, birds, and mammals but I enjoy their beauty. Flowering nearby in wetter habitat and opening at the same time as bittercress, native spring cress blooms with pale pink flowers that soon become white. Their flowers are larger than bittercress blooms. 

Patient observation in our yards will allow us to witness a pageant of life streaming through during migration. A Nashville Warbler working its way north was busy feeding at flowers on a serviceberry also known as shadbush and juneberry. I watched the gray-headed bird with white eye ring, gray back and yellow breast picking something from flowers with its narrow-pointed black beak. 

The serviceberry glows with white flowers for about a week before leaves emerge from buds. The small tree exposes its flowers well without displaying them among leaves like apples trees. 

I returned to look at flowers closely with a hand lens when the warbler was not present. Tiny dark-winged fungus gnats were abundant in the flowers. They are probably what the warbler was eating but the gnats are so small it is a wonder the bird doesn’t use more energy gathering food than it gains in nutrition. With many gnats present, the bird gathers food with little movement. It stands on a branch picking insects from the inner flower. 

Without close examination, we would never know thousands of insects were in the flowers. It is an advantage for native plants to have adaptations with native insects that feed in the flowers and serve as pollinators. Exotic plants, like the hoary bittercress tend to support fewer insect pollinators because their pollinators are mostly on a different continent. Here those insects might be ecologically disruptive. I have not laid on the ground to see if tiny fungus gnats visit the bittercress. It is always exciting to have one more thing to do outdoors.

For good reason, I discourage exotics and encourage native species at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary for our mission of “Biodiversity Enhancement.”  Larger insects seen filling their nature niche at the serviceberry flowers were metallic green sweat bees and bee flies. All are beneficial pollinators people seldom experience.

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

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Hidden singing locations

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A pair of Eastern bluebirds in Michigan. Photo from Wikipedia.

Some birds sing from locations that are easily visible but many remain hidden from view. There are benefits for broadcasting their songs from undercover. 

Two primary functions for bird songs are territory establishment and mate attraction. At selected times during the day or for some species night, males travel a circuit near their territory border to “sing their hearts out.” The song is unique for each species and announces to other males to stay away. It is a vocal “No Trespassing” message. Territories vary in size from year to year depending on population size and abundance pressure. 

Males for most species arrive from migration before females to establish breeding territories. The first ones returning seek the best breeding habitat and generally are successful in defending it. They are challenged by other males and sometimes are driven out but that is not typically the case. Some males do not migrate as far south and this provides the opportunity to arrive at selected breeding sites earlier than other males. 

There is a disadvantage to not going to a more distant winter habitat that might have more suitable weather and food. If the winter is severe, individuals that stay farther north might not survive. Black-capped Chickadees are primarily permanent residents but there are southward invasion movements. The population appears to shift south from Canada. The ones at our winter feeders could be summer residents farther north. 

On a sunny February day, the rise in hormone levels circulating in blood generates a behavior change. We hear the chickadee’s two-note song from both easily viewed locations or hidden in thickets of winter shrubs and forests. The song has one higher whistle followed by a lower note. Typically we hear the chick-a-dee-dee-dee call all year. The call helps them keep track of each other and holds bands together when they are out of sight. Notice several chickadees travel together and often travel in association with other species. 

In March, we begin to hear another songster that repeats its high-pitched song that makes me think some beautiful voiced warbler has arrived too early. Instead it is a bird that is here all winter but generally stays out of sight. It is brown and well camouflaged. It flies to the base of a tree and spirals up the trunk looking for insects in hidden bark crevices. The Brown Creeper sings from hidden locations high in trees. When spring leaves expand, the male is more easily hidden from view but a female will be able to locate it with a little effort. 

Predators seeking hidden birds for a meal need to work hard to find them and the birds become silent when they see or sense danger. The hidden singing location enhances survival chances. Many of the beautiful warblers are unfamiliar to most of us because they stay out of sight when singing. Most of the 30 or so warblers nesting in Michigan’s lower peninsula are not easily seen but can be heard. Other warblers move through on migration to more northerly nesting locations and sing their way through the state giving pleasure to our ears. 

Some of the thrushes like American Robins announce a presence in view but are often hidden. We mostly see them tilting their heads as they listen and look for meals in our yards. Others like the Common Wood Thrush, Veery, and Hermit Thrush are harder to see but are easily heard singing from hidden forest locations. Eastern Bluebirds are more easily viewed because they nest and claim territories in more open areas from visible perches. The more brilliantly colored Indigo Bunting nests in shrublands and sings from high shrub or tree perches. Not all birds remain hidden when claiming territory or announcing locations to attract a mate. 

When we consider how many species thrive in our region, it is a relatively small number that are easily viewed singing. Enjoy the serenade that is most prevalent from late April to early July. I am not particularly good at bird song  recognition but take pleasure in the variety, pitch, volume, and vocal range of avian singers. I had excellent hearing but it has diminished with age. I still hear many. I know where to seek birds in their nature niches and now am mostly a birder by sight. It is more challenging so it is good go birding with others that can locate birds by sound. They help me locate singers in hidden locations that I could not find by sight alone.

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 Art of flowering

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

An abundance of flower beauty graces wild areas during April. By May many spring flowers reach peak blooming. Trout lily faces shine bright yellow. From the backside of the flower, there will be three yellow and three brown petal-like structures but from the front all are yellow. The flowers nod toward the ground on cane-like peduncles above their light and dark green mottled leaves that also have reddish brown patches. During the second week of April, the first had burst into bloom. By the last week of the month, they are in peak flower along with the spring beauties that started blooming just prior to the trout lilies. 

Bloodroot is an early spring bloomer. Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia.

The same day trout lilies began sharing their beauty to attract insects, bloodroot white blooms began their show but they lose their petals almost immediately. It seems they would not attract insects quickly enough to reproduce but they continue to thrive. It is likely few seeds survive. Breaking ground in the same location annually indicates they sprout from underground over-wintering rhizomes. 

In wet lowland areas, spring cress flowers open with pink petals that rapidly whiten. Nearby marsh marigold leaves expand around a cluster of flower buds that will be among the showiest streamside blossoms. 

Flowers stand at the end of stem-like structures that expose them in proper manner for reproductive advantage. Depending on the specific supportive structure, it might be called a peduncle, rachis, scape, spike, umbel, or something else. Details interest ecologists because they distinguish methods for effective fertilization and seed production. No room here for term definitions but flower guide glossaries and pictures will clarify.

The supporting flower structures are not what captures our immediate attention nor do the essential parts. Inside the flower are found stamens, pistils, or perhaps both that are essential. They are essential parts required for successful reproduction. Often they are relatively inconspicuous but produce pollen and eggs. Even from a distance they can draw attention. The early flowering silver and red maples create glowing red treetop hues.

The pollen is produced by an anther at the top of a thread-like filament and together they are termed a stamen. The filament holds the male reproductive anther in a position for releasing pollen where and when needed. Plants like the marsh marigolds found in sunny wetlands, have a large number of stamens but not all release pollen at the same time. Those toward the outer flower reach maturity first and their pollen is less likely to land on the female part that is ready to receive pollen at the same time. This helps prevent self-fertilization. Insects arriving at the flowers bring pollen on their bodies that promote cross-fertilization and better genetic vigor. By the time inner anthers release pollen, the female portion has been fertilized and self-fertilization is prevented.

For many flowers self-fertilization is prevented by male and female parts maturing at different times. The stamens typically are arranged around the female part located at the center of the flower. Anthers are sometime bright yellow or red and add to floral beauty. On willow shrubs the gray fuzzy pussy willow buds of early spring have their own special beauty. Later they yellow when catkins release pollen. Notice female willows do not have yellow catkins. The plants have separate sexes and in that manner insure cross-fertilization. Plants with separate sexes are referred to as imperfect and flowers with both sexes are referred to as perfect. 

The female organ, called a pistil, is composed of three parts. At its base the ovary contains eggs and sits on the receptacle at the end of the stem-like structure supporting the flower. Reaching above the ovary is the style that lifts the stigma into position for receiving pollen. The stigma is the upper surface to which the pollen sticks. Pollen digest their way through the style to the ovules in the ovary where they fertilize them and become seeds. 

The essential stamen and pistil are aided by accessory parts that insects and we most appreciate. The accessory parts are sepals collectively called a calyx and petals are collectively known as a corolla that attract pollinators like bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies. Flowers have nectaries that produce sweet solutions attracting insects. Some produce attractive or foul fetid scents that draw specific pollinators with unique nature niche adaptations.

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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50th Earth Day April 22

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

Earth Day is a time to celebrate nature niche natural wonders. Observe and ponder the importance of species sharing the world with us. Hazelnut catkins began releasing pollen in late March. It is in the birch family and is a shrub currently releasing pollen. Several trees like silver maple have been shedding pollen and expired flowers are falling. Gray fuzzy pussy willow buds were evident before the end of March. Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma butterflies were flying from their secret winter hibernation seclusions. 

With April’s arrival of comfortable warm days, sharp-lobed hepaticas were harbingers of spring with white and purple blossoms. At the same time Golden-crowned Kinglets were feeding on insects in shrub thickets. On April 5 I saw the first Spring Azure butterfly that emerged from its overwintering pupa. The first Field Sparrow with plain gray breast, pink bill and legs arrived in the forest edge aspens and ventured among field shrubs. 

While life forms work to meet the challenges of daily life, environmental protection law enforcement was suspended by President Trump in response to Covid-19. No negative aspects from environmental protection warrant suspension of law enforcement to protect people from respiratory ailments. The Clean Air Act helps protect people from air pollution that worsens health conditions. From the beginning of his presidency, he has looked for ways to abolish environmental protections that have been put in place during the last half century. By directing the Environmental Protection Agency not to enforce laws he is trying to stop protections Congresses created to protect Americans. He has not suspended enforcement of laws for agencies like the Departments of Treasury, Military, and Transportation. Polluting industries can now stop monitoring and reporting dangerous air and water pollution. They could even be exempt from penalties for violating pollution limits.

We should consider why challenging President Trump’s policies is important. Many of his policies do not support long term economic and socially sustainable health to “Keep America Great”. 

Environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, and many others are suing the Trump Administration for taking illegal and unwarranted actions that endanger human health and the natural world that sustains the economy. Nature niche articles focus on protecting ecology and sustainable conditions essential for the health and wellbeing of present and future generations of people, wildlife, and plant communities. The president feels environmental laws are not necessary and found Covid-19 as an excuse to cease enforcing laws that protect our health, economy, and environment that keep our nation productive. Data and scientific findings demonstrate environmental protections improve the industrial, social, economic complex. The laws create a healthier society but he is ignoring both science and economic advisors. Pollution abatement protects family health and household economic prosperity. 

Trump policies are devastating to the efforts begun with leadership in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, republicans, democrats, and the president for the first Earth Day 50 years ago. Massive efforts to undermine environmental protections by the Trump Administration are a way to overwhelming the courts with lawsuits that will take years or decades to resolve. Many conservation organizations are challenging Trump policies in court.

There are two primary points for addressing the 50th Earth Day in a nature niche article. One is to encourage people to contemplate the importance of enforcing environmental laws put in place by past Congresses and past presidents. Hopefully readers will investigate the impacts of current policies and discuss them with others. Protection from things like PFAS is important but President Trump does not think drinking water protection merits law enforcement. The second is to promote enjoyment of the natural wonders and take responsibility for Creation Care. Recognize your personal role for the health of family, society, and economy that depend on a healthy environment. Pollution prevention is less expensive in health and money than to clean up damage.

Watch trout dart from hiding under logs in streams when you approach banks. Cherish the golden yellow of marsh marigold blooms. Enjoy the splendid taste of wild strawberries. Protect future environmental health.

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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Relive Nature Experiences

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Pictures, family stories, and journals are a way to relive experiences. During this time when we are on lock-down and expected to stay at home, get out the albums and vacation journals to remind you of outdoor times with family. Each family member will recall special events and the whole family will spark memories. 

Spring is a great time to begin noting observations in a journal. Someday, you or a family member will enjoy reading the observations and they will bring memories to the forefront. Experiences disappear in brain recesses but are ignited when read in journals. Many would otherwise be lost forever. Some of our experiences follow.

This month we witnessed a Tom Turkey displaying at Ody Brook to entice a hen. Once a Tom turkey saw me as a real turkey at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, approached and mated with my boot. Another time I received a Michigan DNR call inquiring if I had seen any turkeys lately. I participated with them in the reintroduction of turkeys in the Rogue River State Game Area. By odd chance the night before the call, I saw 70 turkeys cross the road in the game area as I drove home. I had not seen any for quite a while and by good fortune saw many that night. My dad referred to such things as a result of “living right.” 

Once when we were driving home from my grandparents in the 1950’s, we saw a Great Blue Heron with a broken wing. We took it to the humane society with hopes they could help it survive and recover. 

At Petoskey State Park on a chilly day we put our inflatable boat in the water near the swimming beach. People were not swimming in the cold water on the pleasant breezy day. My oldest daughter who was about 8 or 9 was rowing in shallow water. An offshore wind was blowing her “out to sea.” To no avail, I instructed how to row to shore. When I saw she was getting into deep water, I realized I needed to swim to rescue her. It was frightening to swim in 40ºF water over my head. If I recall correctly, I shed pants and shirt so they would not weigh me down. I swam in my underwear and once I got to the boat and put my arm through the rope, I relaxed. I no longer thought I could drown. People on the beach were anxiously watching and I figured someone would get help if I got into serious trouble. I pulled her to shore and all was good including the memory.

Some events are positive and some negative but nearly all are a pleasure to recall and discuss at family gatherings and enjoy in retrospect. 

When I have encountered black bears in wild places, they have run from me or at least ignored me and went about their business. Once on a hiking trail in Grand Tetons, two cubs crossed the trail in front of Karen and me with the sow trailing behind. We stopped. We saw two people approaching from the opposite direction and we feared they would walk between the mother and her cubs. I called to the people instructing them to stop until the bear passed. They refused to stop and trudged on without concern. If the bear attacked them to protect her cubs from potential danger, it is likely the bear would have been killed by the park service. 

I began journal writing in 1962 and now I am entering data in Volume 52. In 2011 I began entering natural history observations directly to a Word document with each volume corresponding to the calendar year. I keep Excel Files for many daily sightings for easier organization. I can look up Ody Brook flowering dates, bird sightings, butterfly occurrences among other nature niche happenings. My natural history studies are recorded along with family explorations and substantive thoughts. Hopefully my grandkids and great grandkids will find pleasure reading of times long past. They will learn new things about their parents and even things about themselves. I am transcribing my handwritten journals to Word Docs and get to relive events. It is a joy. 

As a young person, I thought in my old age I would be able to relive experiences via my journals and pictures when unable to physically explore remote wildernesses. We recall family outings when we get together. One person’s memory jogs another’s. Ask family members about what they recall and everyone can relive favorite experiences. Keep making new memories but take joy recalling those from the past.

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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Deadly Alien Beauty

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Recently a Cedar Springs Post reader submitted a picture of a deadly beauty (reposted this week). When I first saw the plant in a ditch a few decades ago in front of a home, I thought about planting it by the road at Ody Brook to create a winter visual barrier. It is Phragmites that grow tall. I learned it is a deadly alien beauty.

This photo was taken recently on 22 Mile Road between White Creek Ave and US131 near Sand Lake. Someone painted many of the plumes various colors. Photo taken by Cherri Rose.

The plant hid Moses when he was a baby and saved his life but in our native habitats it is deadly.

Phragmites has a healthy nature niche across the ocean in Egypt but here it is a killer costing a large amount of money, time, and energy from natural resource agencies and volunteers to control it in wetland habitats. 

It is an example of a pandemic species like those I wrote about in last week’s article. Phragmites do not support native species and eliminates them from habitats. It crowds out cattails and other native plants that are residences for many insects supporting Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Song Sparrows. Muskrats food and shelter building materials are lost. Minks and otters lose muskrats, fish and crustaceans from their diet. 

This beautiful plant causes significant harm to the wetland ecosystem, causes human economic damage, and interferes with production of a food source many people desire. It reduces fishing opportunities. Phragmites control is completed by a variety methods that include draining wetlands and use of herbicide chemicals. 

The Kent Conservation District (KCD) expends a majority of time, effort, and money assisting farmers and other landowners to manage family property and businesses. Among other work, it supports best practices for agriculture, livestock, and animal waste control to prevent contamination of streams and lakes. It facilitates grants to help families manage woodlots. The additional work necessary to control species like Phragmites that kill massive numbers of native species goes unnoticed by most. KCD helps prevent environmental pandemics. 

The Cedar Springs Public Schools had an actively used outdoor study site along Northland Drive with a portable outdoor classroom. The primary teacher facilitating the program retired and site use diminished. The Kent Conservation District was recently instrumental in controlling Phragmites that established in the ditch along the road and threatened survival of native species on school grounds and the outdoor study site. 

Last week I mentioned there are 180 pandemic exotic species causing havoc in the Great Lakes. Many alien species are doing damage in our yards, communities, and public lands. Much of the native timber harvest comes from land owned by private community members. State and national forests are managed for timber and wildlife resources that support local economies. Preventing establishment of pandemic species is essential work.

Many people do not realize the economic and social impacts of human caused introduction of exotic pandemic species into native habitats. Recent laws, 50 years late, address control of ballast water from ships that release exotics into the Great Lakes. Single focus short term monetary interests, often supported by industry, undermine long term community health and sustainability and negatively impact environmental health supporting us. 

The current coronavirus pandemic onslaught devastating the human economy, social structure, and environment is systematic of occurrences in native ecosystems in our neighborhoods. Most do not have the immediate effect of the virus on people but they threaten the long-term sustainability for our communities for future generations. 

Many people do not embrace the importance of human caused climate change that is driving major problems that will flood continental shorelines to a greater extent than the highwater problems occurring in the Great Lakes. Large cities will be flooded and displaced. This will dwarf the problems caused by the covid-19 outbreak. Better leadership from the president and administration is needed to address climate change and the impact it will have on controlling pandemics.  Our role is to require elected leaders to protect environmental conditions that sustain our communities and family heritage for a healthy future. We need elected leaders to focus on inclusive economic, social, and environmental nature niche sustainability of to insure a healthy future. 

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

Visit http://cedarspringspost.com/category/outdoors/ranger-steves-nature-niche/ for last week’s article.

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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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Pandemics in Nature

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