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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Safe Passage Research

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A salvage/research permit for dead birds allows me to collect and use birds for research and education. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have issued me permits and I work with various scientists and organizations to make valuable use of the individuals that are found dead. When I was director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center near Kent City and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell, we displayed many of the birds and viewing access continues for visitors. Many were used when I taught ornithology at Grand Rapids Community College. 

Over the past decades, nearly 1800 animals have been salvaged and listed on my permit. I am required to file annual reports for birds I handle. It is not legal for people to collect birds or feathers of nongame birds without a permit. A new research project coordinated by Linnea Rowse from Michigan Audubon in association with Michigan State University professors uses salvage data to quantify how many birds and what species die by colliding with selected buildings on the MSU’s campus and in Lansing. Table 1 summarizes the species list with numbers for the two years since we began the “Safe Passage Research.” In 2019 we expanded to include Grand Rapids. I have not included the GR list but the Eastern Whippoorwill was added to the species list.

It has been known for decades that birds die by flying into objects on migration. Researchers go to radio towers after a foggy night and collect hundreds of birds that died by hitting towers or guy wires. Lights on the towers attract birds and in fog they get trapped by the lights and fly in circles around the tower. At some point many die hitting the wires or tower or become exhausted and drop. Changing from lights that were on continuously to blinking lights became a life saver for birds by allowing many to escape the light trap.

The death traps have increased because cell towers have proliferated to meet our convenience for phones and other communication. Many birds migrate above forest treetops rather than at high elevations. Migration over cities presents a hazard when birds are attracted by window lights. They approach the buildings and especially on foggy nights or during low cloud cover do not see the building in time to avoid flying into it. 

After they fall to the ground, college students listed on my permit as sub-permittees are assigned to collect dead birds. During the past two years during migration, 77 species have been salvaged with numbers recorded for each species. Our research provides limited information for how many birds die. Heather Good reported in the Michigan Audubon Jack Pine Warbler magazine that birds in the United States and Canada have declined by 3 billion or 29 percent over the past 50 years. 

Many of the deaths can be prevented. Careful placement of towers away from prime migration routes can be effective. Turning building lights off above the second floor or closing blinds to block light helps save lives. Both practices save us money on utility bills while benefiting birds. 

Noting that birds die by hitting buildings, cell towers, or windows without keeping numbers is what scientists refer to as qualitative data. It does not document how many die. The “Safe Passage Research” focus provides quantitative data by recording numbers to help us understand how many birds are lost to collisions. 

The “Safe Passage Research” helps us understand one aspect of bird declines. Some building collision data are not included in our study. A Ruffed Grouse was flying around our home and after flying in front of the house, it turned the corner by the kitchen to go around the house. It discovered too late it was a recessed porch entry, could not stop, and hit the house causing death. It has been 22 years since but I still mourn its death. Many of us have birds die when they hit house windows. These data are not included in our study.

Review Table 1 to see the variety of birds that collide with tall urban buildings. The numbers for species might represent a relative abundance for species or migration routes. There are things we can do to help curb bird declines by implementing “safe passage” practices that help bird survival in their nature niches. 

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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Winter Canoeing Adventure

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A group of college students gathered for guidance for a mid-February trek on the South Branch of the Ausable River. There would be ten of us. Appropriate clothing recommendations were provided along with a list of packing items and how to pack in waterproof containers. I explained wearing a fresh pair of dry socks in sleeping bags would provide better warmth instead of socks worn all day that contained moisture. 

My roommate, Todd, who was joining on the adventure, asked me later why I hadn’t told him that on a previous camping trip where his feet got cold. I did not have a good answer. This trip was my first guided adventure for winter canoeing and I was anxious to get everything correct. I planned to lead many guiding outings after graduating from college. In the succeeding decades, I have lead dozens of exploration outings into wild wonders in Utah, Minnesota, and most frequently in Michigan. I have taken solo backpack pilgrimages in addition to leading backpack trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and into Bryce Canyon’s Wilderness.

We rented canoes, secured camping gear in canoes, and set voyage for a pleasant float where Bald Eagles, river otters, mink, and darting fish would make river appearances. Perhaps deer would watch us from cedar swamps where they herded safe from surrounding areas with deep snow. Cedar trees prevented deep snow from building beneath them and deer fed on low branches. One can tell when a deer population is excessive by branches being browsed as high as deer can reach when standing on hind legs. 

The South Branch of the Ausable River is narrower, faster, more exciting, and seems to have more wild areas than the main Ausable branch. Many homes and cottages lined the river but not as many as are now present. Our growing population is usurping habitat nature niches by people seeking wild places to live the year round or to occupy during mild season weather. Increased development results in fewer wildlife.

I figured this river was a good combination of both wild and human inhabited banks in the event we ran into trouble. I did not want to take a novice group into wilderness areas where help could not be found if needed. Most of the float was quiet with sightings of target wildlife. Canoers did expect to see Great Blue Herons wading to fish or to see Belted Kingfishers perched above the water ready to dive for midday meals. 

I do not recall if we witnessed river otters playfully sliding down banks for family fun between their fishing expeditions. I have seen winter play on a few occasions but that is always a lucky treasure.

When we rounded a bend and encountered some rocks protruding above the surface, two of the women hit a rock and tried to straighten the canoe to face downstream. Inexperience resulted in wrong paddle moves and their canoe rolled. Fortunately, it was shallow water but they submerged in knee-deep water. My roommate and I were not far behind so I jumped into the water to first rescue them by helping each stand. Secondly, I hustled downstream to salvage a few items that were not tied securely in the canoe. 

We climbed the bank to a winter residence high on the slope. A couple was home and welcomed our water-soaked paddlers into warmth. They offered to place their clothes in a dryer along with my pants that were wet from the knees down. We joined with others for lunch downstream. The girls had a harrowing story to share. 

We reached a campground for an evening campfire, a hot cooked meal, and cozy sleeping bags for nesting in tents. There was a nice grassy slope above the river with flat land at the base. I inspected the slope for safety hazards and slid downslope on my back. The coat made a smooth sledding surface. We did not have sleds but our coats created a good sled runner. The group sledding adventure was repeatedly used and became a faster run with repeated use. 

Meanwhile our supper fire was burning to cooking coals. In the morning we loaded canoes and floated to where the livery service met us at the end of a wonderful winter canoeing adventure. 

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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Red and Gray Foxes

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

A red fox and cubs. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A young pup gray fox. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Sleek body, red fur, black legs, and white tipped tail are typical for the red fox. The gray fox shows greater variation with an overall gray coloration having tints of a red and black hair mix. Visit the Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive north of M-46 and follow the Ranger Trail to the Red Pine Interpretive Center to see one of the most beautiful gray fox mounts I have seen. Explore the learning stations to see hundreds of animal mounts. Harold Moody prepared a large portion of the “live mounts.”

Red foxes are small animals weighing 8 to 15 lbs. Gray fox are slightly lighter but appear to be the same size. Fur fluff gives foxes a larger appearance. 

A young pup gray fox. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Both red and gray foxes are found in the region, as are coyotes. Domestic dogs sometimes roam our region. Foxes try to stay hidden and one of the best clues to their presence are tracks about the size of a cat’s. The main difference for a cat track is the lack of claw marks. Cats retract the nails when walking. Fox claw marks are evident except on hard surfaces. They can be difficult to separate from coyote tracks and are basically impossible to separate between the two foxes. Coyotes’ two front nails might be closer together and the footprint might appear more oval. I think fox tracks are more rounded like a cat’s. This is a precarious judgement call and is best used in conjunction with other identifying characteristics. 

The gate and position of the tracks helps with identification. Coyotes are larger and have greater distance between tracks when walking. Foxes walk with footprints more closely spaced from side to side creating a straighter line. It is not a perfect straight line but it helps separate coyote from fox tracks. When walking your dog, notice the side to side distance between footprints. 

I sex the foxes by following tracks until they urinate. Like domestic dogs, females squat and urinate between their tracks. Males lift a leg and pee on objects. 

Nature niche habitat provides some identification aid but must be used with caution. Open farm country with scattered woodlots is utilized more frequently by red foxes and they are the ones I see most frequently. Gray foxes spend more time in forests and are the only member of the dog family able to climb trees. They often sleep in trees and are most likely found on branches near the tree trunk. They blend well with bark color. 

One of the most interesting features a red fox possesses are scent glands by the anus. One is above and two are to the side of the anus. They release a scent by rubbing the gland against objects. Recently one left its distinctive gland odor at the field/forest border at Ody Brook. Fox odor has a skunky smell but it is different from a skunk’s in that it is weaker and does not permeate the entire area. The scent remains in a confined space that we can walk into and out of quickly. When my nose picks up the scent, I quickly walk out of it. I stop and walk back through it where in a matter of feet I walk out of it again. 

At night I smelled a skunk near our bird feeders and the smell permeated the entire area. When I was walking our dog in the field, we came upon the fox odor and Kyyo became extremely interested in the animal. He investigated with great intent. When we entered the skunk smell, he showed moderate interest. 

This is the time of year when mating occurs and young will be born in dens in about two months after mating. In late March to May birthing occurs for a few to 10 young. Fox kit survival depends on food abundance. When the litter is large, the chances of starvation increase. When young eyes open and their activity increases so does behavior dominance. The larger kits will get most of the food and smaller ones will not grow well. As size increases, the smaller ones will be more likely to die if food is not adequate for all. 

Old woodchuck dens are often used. The fox will excavate it to widen the entrance and lengthen it to about ten feet. Sometimes they dig a den and they are often under a fallen tree. Watching from a distance is great fun. 

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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Great Blue Heron

A Great blue heron in Florida. Photo by Terry Foote. 

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Long legs and neck are distinctive for this gray/blue bird but the Great Blue Heron’s stalking behavior demonstrates unparalleled patience. My most recent view was at Ody Brook where one blended with Little Cedar Creek scenery. It was standing in shallow water watching, waiting, and poised to capture a meal. I stood still hoping to see it successfully capture lunch. 

The heron was about 200 feet upstream where at first I did not notice it. A lump with a branch protruding upward transformed into a stationary bird. Though I did not move, my presence likely was the reason the bird flew. It gained altitude over the creek and moved farther upstream where it could feed without an audience. 

Refraction bends light rays when the medium changes from air to water. Objects are not where they appear. The heron spears frogs, fish, or other prey and has learned to compensate for prey location that is different than it appears. Look at the eyes to notice it uses binocular vision. This does not mean magnification as might be expected. It means it uses both eyes together like we do to create a three-dimensional image that provides depth perception. Most birds have eyes that are positioned on the sides of the head and it prevents them from using them together to create depth perception. It is referred to as monocular vision.

Herons stand like statues where they wait for prey to come within striking distance. With lightning fast action their sharp pointed yellow bill enters the water and often enough secures a meal. Starving is likely for those that do not master fishing skills. Fortunately, they have inherited skills they perfect with practice. 

Some challenges present life-threatening hazards. We observed a dead heron on the road when we were driving to Lincoln Lake. When driving east of Greenville, a heron flew from the ditch into our vehicles path on M-57. Karen was able break enough for the bird to reverse direction and we barely avoided hitting it. 

About once a year my vehicle collides with a bird. If I am not on a freeway, I stop if it is safe and go to the bird. I sit with it until the glimmering eye sparkle clouds to a dull fog as life fades. It is a short memorial reverence for a life lost. I am particularly unsettled by car animal collision deaths. I prefer death to arrive by predation. When a heron preys on another animal, it is a valuable and appropriate occurrence in its nature niche. 

One can make a case that scavengers will feed on road kills but there are enough natural deaths to provide scavengers with sustenance. Road kills seem excessively wasteful of life

A reader told me he heard a rifle shot and investigated. A Great Blue Heron had been feeding in a pond stocked with fish for humans to catch and he found the bird floundering as it died. Laws are established to protect herons from such killings but people ignore laws when it suits their desires. There was a time when killing birds that kill other animals was encouraged because people thought humans should have exclusive rights to kill other animals. Some still do. Egrets, relatives of herons, were driven to near extinction because they were over hunted. Wolves, cougars, sandhill cranes, and many other predators have suffered similar fates.

People are still divided about whether predators other than people should be allowed to live. There is currently an effort to weaken wildlife protections and gut the Endangered Species Act by the Trump administration. Ecological science is being ignored in decision making and federal agencies are not being allowed to use science-based decision making in many instances. Contact legislators to voice your opinion.

There is need for social impact decision practices that are balanced with protecting the environment to supports our economy and environmental sustainability for future generations of wildlife and people. 

Great Blue Herons nest in colonies high in trees. They leave nesting sites to fly many miles to feeding areas. I encourage people to allow herons to thrive even if they make a living by fishing in streams and ponds we share.

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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Christmas Bird Count Numbers 2019

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Forty-eight species were seen (Table 1) by 39 field observers and three bird feeder watchers on 28 Dec 2019. 

Total individuals sighted was 6,376 compared with 14,442 in 2015; 9,342 in 2016; 6,161 in 2017; and 6,909 in 2018. The number of individual birds sighted was down compared with 3 of the last 4 years. The fewer number this year might be a result of warm weather conditions causing birds to disperse more. Water birds were not restricted to small areas of open water by ice. Terrestrial birds could search large areas instead of concentrating around bird feeders. 

The day was cloudy with the temperature between 28º and 40ºF. There was no snow coverage. Still water had a thin ice covering and flowing waters were open.

We totaled 59 hours traveling in vehicles for 533 miles. 10.75 hours was spent on foot covering 17.5 miles and 6 hours was watching feeders. A combined total of 550.5 miles was on foot and driving. Groups totaled 69 hours of daytime birding. There were 15 birding parties in the morning, 4 in the afternoon and 3 feeder watchers. 

In the predawn, 20 miles was traveled in one hour where owling found two Eastern Screech Owls and one Great Horned Owl. 

Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) co-hosted the count with Grand Rapids Audubon Club. WWC facility use is appreciated for our base station. Visit and enjoy the WWC trails that are open 24/7.

Mark your calendars for Jan. 2, 2021 to participate in the 2020 Christmas Bird Count. 

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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Mouse in the House

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


My preference is for mice to construct their “house” or shelter in natural habitats. Like snow that I wish would fall everywhere except the roads, sidewalks and drives, I hope mice stay in natural areas. Our wishes are not heeded. In fields, the meadow voles build grass shelters of woven grass. Depending on the habitat quality in fields, the number of shelters vary. There can be five territories for voles in an acre. Under ideal conditions, a vole can produce a litter every 21 days. This is good news for hawks, owls, and foxes that hunt fields. Voles tend to be abundant along treeless freeway shoulders where Red-tailed Hawks set up hunting areas.

Mousing hawks stand on nearby trees, shrubs, and highway signs to watch for movement. They soar overhead and stand near farm fields. So to speak, they are our friends by helping reduce the rodent population. Weasels move through fields and shrublands to meet their high metabolism need for frequent meals. 

Less than 10 species of mice share Michigan yards, natural habitats and our houses. Over 100 species of what people generally refer to as mice inhabit the United States and Canada. 

The Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also called a meadow mouse is dark brown, has a tail half body length and its small ear pinnae are almost hidden in its fur. Though it is possibly the most abundant mouse in the region, it is not the most abundant to move into our houses. The Woodland vole might also be present.

The prairie deermouse, woodland deermouse, and white-footed mouse are likely to take residence in our houses. It is difficult to separate them but nature niche preferences and anatomical features help. The two deermice in our area are considered subspecies in the process of developing new species. When to separate or lump them as species is difficult. More than fifty subspecies are distinguished across the continent and are a choice group for scientists studying evolution in progress. Many species of plants and animals are midway in species development but mice are easy to rear. Difficulty arises because speciation studies typically require centuries. 

The prairie deermouse has smaller ears and shorter tail than the woodland subspecies. The tails on both are bicolored with sharply separated brown on top and white beneath. The white-footed mouse’s tail is not sharply bicolored and ear length is midway between that of the two deermice. White-footed mice brown fur lightens on their sides. The prairie deermouse survives best in open grasslands. I think woodland deermice enter our house. To be sure, it is necessary to clean meat from mice bones and examine skull details. I prioritize other projects. 

The white-footed mice frequently use bird nest boxes and hollow trees in winter but so do deermice. In March, I clean birdhouses to ready them for the return of bird migrants. 

Mice that might be encountered during family northern vacations or on hunting trips could be the red-backed vole and woodland jumping mouse. The similar meadow jumping mouse can is found in southern Michigan but unlike other mice during winter it hibernates. Another infrequently encountered species is the southern bog lemming that thrives in swamps. We have seen them along the boardwalk in the swampy bog habitat to Chrishaven Lake at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. Though called “southern” they live mostly north of the region and are southern compared to the northern bog lemming that is not found south of Canada in the east.

Exotic species include the house mouse and Norway rat. Only once have I encountered a Norway rat at Ody Brook but they can be common in farm buildings and grain mills. Fortunately, the house mouse that also came from Europe has not been found in our home. 

Deermice have little economic significance. They and white-footed mice are valuable as prey for foxes, hawks, owls, and snakes. Mice can be a nuisance. We trap mice in the house because we do want mouse turd leavings or hanta virus. Typically the only mice you will encounter in your house are deermice, white-footed mice, and occasional meadow voles. Depending on neighborhood habitats, others can be expected.

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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Where is the Red Belly?

R

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve MuellerW

The suet feeder attracts many bird species including the Red-bellied Woodpecker. One would expect a name to indicate a prominent feature but for this woodpecker it does not. Instead people tell me they have the uncommon Red-headed woodpeckers.

The head on the adult Red-headed Woodpecker is a distinctive feature on both sexes and they have a striking wing characteristic that cinches identification. This species’ head is completely red on front, back, sides, and top in the adult birds. The young have brown heads during their first year that gradually change to red. 

Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

The wings have large white patches on what are called the secondary feathers. This makes the lower back look white even on young birds perched on a tree. The adult’s white is pure but the young have some brown barring through the white. In flight the white on the wings flashes brightly making identification easy. 

The bright red head is not always as obvious as the white on the wings. Dim light in cloudy weather subdues the red color but the large white patches on wings remain obvious. The belly on this species is white.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

Where’s the red on the Red-bellied Woodpecker? Their breast is gray or brownish with a slight tinge of red on the lower belly near the tail. The red is barely visible and not the good feature for identification. The head pattern is more helpful. Both sexes have significant red on the back of their heads but the sides and front are gray. The male has a red cap that continues over the top of the head that is lacking in the female. 

Lack of solid color on the head helps distinguish the Red-bellied from the Red-headed. When the red color is subdued in dim light, the solid pattern verses dark and light contrast can be seen. In flight the Red-bellied has a white patch on the upper rump but it does not extend across the lower wings like it does on the Red-headed. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker wings are flecked with white spots overlaying black throughout the wing. There is a sharp division of black and white on the Red-headed’s wings with the upper back black and lower white. 

Less obvious features help with identification. The bill on the Red-bellied is dark but is silvery gray on the Red-headed. The nine species of woodpeckers in Michigan have dark upper tail feathers but some have white outer feathers. Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers outer tail feathers are white with a helpful difference for separating the two. There are black flecks on the underside across the white feathers on the Downy and the Hairy’s is pure white. When the Downy spreads its tail feathers while standing on a suet feeder or tree, some black flecking can be seen on the outer most upper tail feathers. The Hairy is larger than a Downy.

Five of the nine Michigan woodpeckers are common in our region. The approximate order from most common is Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted), and Pileated. Depending on the neighborhood habitat, that order might differ. Flickers are not frequently seen in winter and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is usually only noticed during spring and fall migrations. The crow sized Pileated is present all year where there are larger trees and they often frequent large upland forest or extensively forested lowland floodplains. 

Behavior in nature niches is important for recognizing species. With considerable practice varied calls help separate species even when not seen. Most helpful is the rhythm of head-banging on a tree, house, or sound resonating surface. Speed and loudness of woodpecker pounding helps. It also varies with the work being done. Territorial tree pounding sounds different from that of birds searching for insects hidden under tree bark. 

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely on smaller branches than Hairy Woodpeckers that choose larger branches when working. Northern Flickers and Red-bellied woodpeckers, that are about the same size, choose different habitats. Flickers are often found in open areas feeding on ants while the Red-bellied almost always feeds in forests. Michigan woodpeckers nest in hollow trees. Take notice of details to hone your observation skills.

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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Trip from Andromeda

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller


Riding on a light beam for 2.5 million years at the speed of light. my friend Bob Raver and I traveled to Earth to investigate its ecosphere. Well this story needs further explanation. 

I was director for the Environmental Education School at Bryce Canyon National Park for a few years in the 1970’s. Student teachers from Southern Utah State College spent their summer teaching at the environmental school. Children were dropped at the school so parents could enjoy extensive hikes on canyon trails. Children explored the park wonders by perusing their interests with teachers. It was wonderful for parents and children.

I regularly stopped at the school to see if things were going well, if teachers needed assistance, and to review programming. Bob and I had told the teachers we came from the Andromeda Galaxy and they didn’t believe us. 

One day we arrived at the school before heading to our assigned 16-mile Fairyland Trail roving patrol to greet hikers in the backcountry. The teachers asked us to put pins on the world map at our home location. I put mine in Michigan and Bob put his in California. They said, “See, we knew you weren’t from Andromeda,” and showed us where they had written the galaxy name at map’s edge. We moved our pins to our galaxy home. 

Within the week a newspaper reporter arrived to do a story on the environmental school. In the subsequent article she listed locations where children came from. They included places like London, , Germany, Anchorage, Alaska, and Andromeda. Ever since, I have said, it must be true because it was in the paper. 

Hopefully people that listen to TV news, read newspapers, or look up Internet information, work to verify the accuracy of what is reported. Many things reported are short sound bites that are not fully supported with physical evidence. Fortunately, science requires multiple studies to verify conclusions before being accepted.

I make an effort to write things in niche articles that are supported with overwhelming physical empirical evidence. Hopefully, my errors are few and preferably zero. Scientific studies are sometimes not as well supported as thought but more frequently they are dismissed because they are not what people desire to believe. What we believe and what empirical evidence supports sometimes have different conclusions. 

Back to my “home” galaxy of Andromeda. It has about one trillion stars where it is statistically possible that some might have planets supporting life. The galaxy is similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy in several ways. It is a spiral galaxy. Elliptical and irregular galaxies are two other types that have been identified. 

Winter is a great time on a dark moonless night to observe Andromeda without the aid of a telescope or binoculars. During a recent dark clear night, I went out and looked “home.” To view it one needs to know where to look and how to see it. If one looks directly at it, the galaxy is invisible because eye cones are not sensitive to dim light. They are responsible for color vision and are concentrated toward the center of the eye. 

Rods are found numerously in high concentration farther from the pupil. When looking at Andromeda, it is necessary to look off to the side for our eyes to bring it into dim view. To find it, locate the Little Dipper constellation with the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia constellations on opposite sides of the Little Dipper. Cassiopeia looks like a lopsided W with five prominent stars. From the middle W star look to the lower right star. Allow your eye to travel about 2.5 times the distance between the two stars in Cassiopeia. The galaxy is not in straight alignment with the two stars. It is a little to one side of the straight line. 

For those wanting to see this dim closest galaxy, I will set up an observation night at Ody Brook for people to join at 9:30 p.m. It will require a clear night and if I cannot help you see it, we can enjoy stars, constellations, and discuss how early cultures used the sky for crop planting, travel, and other things. Contact me to sign up for night sky enjoyment. I will select a night for Earthlings to come and will have a telescope for our viewing.

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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Irregular migration

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Male white-winged crossbill. Photo by Garth McElroy/VIREO via Audubon.org

Various birds, mammals, insects, and even plants migrate. Irregular migration is one type of migration that can be observed. Rough-legged Hawks, Snowy Owls, White-winged and Red Crossbill might show up as a result of irregular migration in winter. I refer to their eruptive appearance in our region as a type of irregular migration. 

When food supplies are scarce in northern wintering grounds, they move south in search of food and survival. When lemmings in the arctic that Snowy Owl depend on are low, it requires them to migrate or starve. Many predators starve with young being most vulnerable. During years of low food supply, these predators frequently have small broods or might lay no eggs. Their efforts concentrate on their own precarious survival. 

Prey populations fluctuate for many reasons and they control predator population numbers. It was thought that predators control prey species numbers but evidence indicates prey numbers often control predator numbers. 

Insect numbers control bird populations for swallows, flycatchers, phoebes, nuthatches, and many other species. Insectivorous birds feed heavily on insects with minimal effect on eliminating insect populations. If you have been in the far north, you might have experienced trillions of mosquitoes. Exposed areas of skin like your face and hands make it a nearly unbearable experience because of biting insects. 

At times I wiped my face with one hand and then the other to remove mosquitoes and then wiped each hand. Immediately I needed to wipe my face and hands again because they were already covered with insects. Head nets and effective insect repellent were necessary. A cold spell after bird arrival in spring reduces insects and can cause tens of thousands of birds to starve. Swallows and longspurs sometimes experience massive death. 

During the breeding season, birds and insect eating mammals gorge themselves on food that appears endless. Some species, like caribou, find it essential to migrate to cold areas near the arctic ocean to get reprieve from insects that dangerously reduce their blood. Breeding and calving grounds near the cold ocean are important to aid caribou health and survival. Migration from inland to coastal areas is a normal and important migration. 

Some species like Monarchs have unique migrations while other butterflies may have irregular migrations. Painted Ladies make two-way migrations that are regular but many have one-way eruptive movements. Several butterflies have one-way immigrations when they their leave normal geographic breeding ranges. Populations of Orange Sulphurs become abundant and move north in late summer as do Variegated Fritillaries and Little Yellows. As fall conditions arrive, they do not return to sites of origin. They live and die here.

Duckweed is a small plant that floats on the surface of ponds and becomes so numerous it hides the visible water it covers. When fall cold takes over, duckweed sinks to the bottom of ponds and will resurface in spring when warming sunlight allows it to increase photosynthesis that produces oxygen and buoyancy. It has its own annual vertical migration. A different migration process occurred for plants during the advance and retreat of glaciers. Individual trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants did not move. During the slow advance of ice, seeds spread by adult plants allowed new individuals to establish in front of the ice front. As glaciers advanced south or retreated north, plant seeds moved species hundreds of miles to where they colonized newly exposed habitat. 

Unique irregular eruptive migration nature niches occur for White-winged and Red Crossbills. These northern conifer inhabiting bird species feed on cone seeds. The sharp tips on the upper and lower bills overlap. They partially open the beak to insert the tips between spruce or pinecone scales and then close the bill to push scales apart. They reach between the scales to retrieve edible seeds with their tongue. Trees regularly have high cone production years followed by years with few. To survive, the crossbills must move to areas where seeds are available. During lean years in the north, we are treated with their irregular eruptive presence here. 

This only breeches the beginning of migration phenomena. Amphibians migrate and more await future sharing.

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 Irregular migration

Look Up, Down, and Outward

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Reproductive structures color dead twigs with festive December red. Hidden fungi within dead twigs decompose them and slowly release nutrients that enrich and fertilize the soil. Scattered on the surface of twigs in fall are the red, yellow, black, or white fungus fruiting bodies. Throughout the forest and fields enjoyable sights wait our attention when we look up, down, and outward. 

Everywhere we look organism nature niches bring evidence of species busy at work. We can be oblivious to what surrounds us or we can soak in entertainment that life provides. Don’t miss a late season walk as fall comes to a close on Dec. 22 and the joy as winter settles around us later that day. Daylight will begin lengthening after the winter solstice but the cold and snow will just be getting started. 

With each snowfall a downward glance brings small mammal tracks into view. Imprints can be seen on the snow and small holes penetrate into the insulating snow cover. Tracks inform us of activity that goes on during the night. Upwardly observe chickadees, nuthatches, or goldfinches flitting among tree branches. Maybe a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with a white eye ring will be active. Looking outward may bring a deer into view as it stands watching you. The only movement could be the twitching of an ear before it slowly slips into a thicket.

Sounds of waving branches sliding against others will redirect attention upwards. Squirrels running from tree to tree on extended branches mark aerial highway routes. Leaf shelters scattered throughout the forest mark home range boundaries. Some squirrels draw attention to the ground where they are burying nuts, digging those stored, or simply eating a midday snack. Stop and take time to observe.

Animals are engrossed in the moment as they focus on meeting today’s food and shelter needs. During fall, instinct leads activities in unique directions that help each species survive winter. Some, like squirrels, store food to meet active winter lives. Bumble bees and wasps die except for the queen that will survive in some secluded location with fertilized eggs. If she survives, she will begin a new colony after the harshness of winter. 

Woolly bear caterpillars laden with fat wander among leaf litter seeking hiding places to hold up for months of dormancy. Black fuzzy bodies bearing a middle orange band of varying widths become obvious to even nonobservant people. We are most familiar with the caterpillar but the drab adult moth often escapes our notice.

Fall raindrops bead on brown and tan leaves lying on the ground. Depending on the angle of sun rays, they change from a nearly invisible translucence to sparkling diamonds beautifully spaced on the impenetrable leaf surface. Water on the ground soaks into soil and invisibly works its way to streams. Heavy rain that comes when the ground is frozen runs off the land’s surface quickly as gravity draws it downslope. 

Floodwater from rains or rapid snow melt rises in streams to cover the surrounding lowlands. Already in December skunk cabbage breaks the soft unfrozen floodplain soil with pointed green leaf growth curled tightly together where they will hold fast with little change until February when its flowering spathe and spadix break through snow as the first flowering plant of the year. For now we can take pleasure in the plant peaking above ground as it readies for spring.

Leaves, lacking the brilliant yellows, reds, greens, or multi-hued colors of early fall, explicitly display shapes and sizes often overlooked when bright autumn colors dominate. Barren tree branches overhead are the norm but oaks and young beech trees often hold leaves into winter. The skeleton branches of dormant treetops allow blue sky or shades of gray from clouds to bring apparent life to non-living things drifting across the heavens. 

It does not matter if we look down, up, or outward, something special waits viewing as fall concludes and winter begins. Dehydrated winter buds of varied shapes are nestled snuggly for winter’s cold. Bundle snuggly and enjoy the endless wonders waiting your explorations. 

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 Look Up, Down, and Outward

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