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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Enjoyable butterfly counts

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sensing Sequence and Succession

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Sequence of flowers through the seasons brings new beauty to our eyes and nose with each passing week as spring progresses from brown duff to the laying of autumn leaves. The sequence fills our senses of sight and smell but delicate, rough, smooth, prickly, and wet adds the discovery of touch. One cannot avoid the desire to taste when finding wild strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Sounds change with the sequence of seasonal plant progression when wind moves through barren tree branches and those full of leaves. 

A day lacking fulfillment occurs if we do not notice the sequence unfolding in yards, neighborhoods, parks, and natural areas. Separation of body and soul from the natural world has increased during the past century with concentrated urban living and by cooping ourselves inside homes away from fresh air, plants, and animals. Daily natural world ventures bring us in contact with plants and animals sharing the world. 

It is easy to continue isolation outdoors with earbuds that limit sounds to human music piped to ears when walking or running. Listen to the sounds of crickets and scores of insects that replace the quieting of birds finished with their early breeding season family duties. By staying attuned, discover a full orchestra playing that will become annually familiar and provide a calming comfort through the seasons. 

Changes that occur during succeeding years replace orchestra members with new ones that compete for limited seating. Early members prepare richer soil, different lighting, and moisture holding capacity suitable for plants and animals auditioning for their place in a developing community where change is referred to as succession. 

The most obvious community change from barren farm field is plant succession from annual plants, to herbaceous perennial wildflowers, woody shrubs like raspberries and dogwoods, and then pioneer trees like musclewood and aspen. Under the pioneer trees, oaks and hickory find root and good living conditions. Associated with plant changes is animal succession. When exploring with others and especially children, I emphasize animal succession. Different animals live in successional plant communities.

We do not need to be young to notice the animals, but it helps. Mouse abundance becomes great in grassy fields where we can find “mouse houses” made of woven grasses. Hawking the grasslands are Red-tailed Hawks feasting on mice. As shrubs colonize fields, Cooper’s Hawks become more abundant in search of birds. In maturing forest Broad-winged Hawks find residence and food.

Different bird species have habitat preferences for early succession herbaceous communities to late succession forests. In each stage of succession called a sere, different insects and invertebrates make their home. Unique bird species and mammals depend on different kinds of insects found in each sere. For many of us, focusing on the succession of animals is more interesting and fun than the change in plant species. Keep exploration fun. Kids are great guides and explorers that will discover abundant life most of us will drift past. Let kids help you enjoy and experience your senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. 

The annual sequence of animals and plants making appearances during the seasons will liven our attention. Little blue butterflies of spring disappear with the coming of various hairstreak butterflies near the 4th of July. Great Spangled Fritillaries with orange wings soar over fields later in summer. Butterflies have a special beauty but dragonflies feeding on an abundance of small flying insects offer their own thrilling aerobatic displays. Watch for Common Whitetails, Chalk-fronted Corporals, Widow Skimmers, Green Darners, and various species of meadowhawk dragonflies.

A sequence of beetles, flies, grasshoppers, and others abound seasonally. Different successional changes occur over a period of years. Take notice of animal species having ecological niches dependent on specific community relationships that develop in successional communities. Seasonal sequence is different from community succession that occurs over many years.

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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Star-nosed Mole

Sopped after a swim, a star-nosed mole provides a rare full-body glimpse before retreating to forage in a Maine wetland. Photo by Dwight Kuhn (DRK Photo), from National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org).
Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Living underground in wet, poorly drained soil is a way of life for star-nosed moles. It is rare to see one. I was surprised to locate one in a relatively dry field but they venture away from saturated soils. This made the 30th mammal species identified at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. It is heartwarming to know we are succeeding with our mission of enhancing biodiversity by maintaining habitat diversity. 

Infrequent encounters with this species has been a treat. My knowledge for the species is limited so I conducted a literature search to learn the best science knowledge. Years ago I picked up a dead one on 17 Mile Road near Long Lake County Park to stuff for Howard Christensen Nature Center. 

People often want to know what human value a species has before they gain interest. We tend to be self-interested before finding reason to care for other creatures. I found good reasons to maintain a healthy habitat for this fellow citizen. The star-nosed mole is studied as a model organism for tactile transduction. Researchers discovered it has the most rapid nerve transmission to the brain for mammals. Study of its electric transmission impulse speed may benefit people who have a prostheses. By accelerating electrical transmissions to the brain, artificial limb mobility could function more like a natural arm, hand, leg or foot. 

Another essential and beneficial service moles provide people is promoting soil aeration for plant roots in saturated soil where oxygen is limited. They spend most of their time burrowing tunnels and are active both day and night. They spend more time on the surface of the ground than do the other mole species. About half of each 24-hour period is spent resting or sleeping. Burrowing animals like voles, shrews, mice, ants, chipmunks, and many others aerate the soil but few live or burrow in wetland saturated soil like star-nosed moles. 

Star-nosed mole from the front. Photo from National Park Service.

This species depends on wetlands for survival and can be threatened by ongoing filling that occurs for new home construction. Our human focus on upstream wetland filling to increase a greater tax base locally has little to do with the wellbeing of human neighbors living downstream. Battles continue over environmental laws to prevent flooding of downstream homes by upstream filling. Some people place personal interests above community welfare. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states Michigan has lost 50 percent of its original wetlands. 

Laws do not focus on the wellbeing of star-nosed moles whose homes are eliminated by wetland filling for construction. Most of us will never see the mole. Their value is important for protecting wetland forest health for birds, mammals, and fish populations. Many landowners utilize aerated forest habitat for timber growth income. Additional human benefits include moles preying on the larvae of insect pests. The value of species can usually be shown to demonstrate benefits for ecological niche, human health and our economy.

Beyond human value, moles have unique characteristics. They are the only mammal able to smell underwater. When swimming in search of food, they blow bubbles they hold with their star-like 22 nose tentacles. They breath in the air contained in the bubble and search for the small animal they smell. In winter, they remain active in streams when terrestrial ground is frozen and they feed on aquatic organisms. Food includes worms, leeches and larvae of caddisflies, midges, crane flies, horse flies, predacious diving beetles, stoneflies, and developing dragonfly and damselfly naiads. Overwintering aquatic organisms also stay active in winter.

Moles are food for owls at night and hawks during the day. Skunks, weasels, minks and other predatory mammals seek them. Aquatic predators include the bullfrog and largemouth bass. They are found across the northern US from the Dakotas to the Atlantic States and in Canada north of the eastern states. 

Like other moles, they have large digging claws, and small eyes that primarily detect light and dark. They are three inches in length with a hairy tail that swells with stored fat. Their fur is black or dark brown. The eastern mole has a short tail and is about twice as large. It is a most interesting find when you explore 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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Flashing Fireflies

Ranger Steve Mueller

It was a dark night with a hidden moon. During that special time, the moon and the sun are on the same side of the Earth. It is a time the moon is nowhere to be seen and is a miraculous time to enjoy the blackness of night. 

From the back porch instead of thinking about the moon, fireflies captured my attention. I drifted to my childhood, the time when my kids were young, and now with anticipation for exploring flashing lightening bugs with grandsons. Fireflies and lightening bugs are neither flies nor bugs. They are beetles with hard wing covers they pull forward to expose membranous wings for flight. The wing covers, called elytra, are dark with orange markings but they are not seen at night. What excites us in the dark is their flashing of green, yellow, or red. 

With dusk dimming on warm nights, a firefly light show begins. I enjoy their fireworks more than the beautiful noisy fireworks we set off from cannons. For me, human fireworks are best enjoyed from a distance where their explosions do not ruffle my senses like the bombs of war. Fireflies blink silently to attract mates. While they are busy searching for one with whom to make love, I count flash frequency. Each species has a unique flash speed that speaks like Morse code. They do not talk in words but signal with light codes.

My mind drifts to a favorite “Sesame Street” character – the Count. He loved to count. With my kids we counted the flashes of these night insects. We would count how many were flying. In darkness they would disappear but we would try to determine their direction of flight. It was a wonderful way to explore the outdoor world. 

As a child, sitting and watching was more than could be tolerated. Chasing and capturing them in a jar was essential. I recall on a boy scout camping trip some of the scouts felt it necessary to catch many. Once they had a large number in a jar, they had to determine what to do with them. That was a temporary dilemma. My dad was a scoutmaster and they thought it would be fun to release them in his tent. When he left the campfire to go to bed he would discover his sleeping bag full of burning coals or so he would think. What fun for the scouts!

There is a festival at Great Smokey Mountain National Park in May that attracts people from great distances to see the synchronized flashing. It is not necessary to travel far. The show occurs locally from early June through July. Urban yards might not be a suitable stage but an evening drive with kids or grandkids can be rewarding. 

Fireflies need fields and forests near marshes or damps areas. They are declining worldwide for various reasons not completely understood. Some things are known. They do not move to nearby habitats when human development expands to replace their home. They simply die a local extinction. Our continuously growing population is pushing them off the Earth. Stabilizing our population to share creation will help other species survive. Beside habitat loss, light pollution from too much yard light along with use of pesticides and herbicides are causing declines. We can provide creation care for fireflies for their sake or for our own. 

Scientists found firefly luciferase that produces the bioluminescence can be used as a marker to detect blood clots. It helps identify tuberculosis virus cells. It aids the monitoring of hydrogen peroxide levels that identify cancer and diabetes. We might think nature is expendable with no consequences for us but it is not. We needed to collect the beetles for their chemical but have learned to synthesis it. We would not know its benefits without these insects. If we let other species disappear, we will never discover their value when a need arises. Maybe a cure for coronavirus or other new diseases is hidden in plants or animals but will disappear with the massive extinctions of life forms that is occurring. 

Protectfields, forests and marshes. Fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest leaf litter at the margins of ponds and streams. This is a good year for them with the rain we received.  Avoid over cleaning yards and gardens. Immaculate yards spell death to this valuable community member. They help us by feeding on slugs and snails. Avoid using pesticides and herbicides in yards and gardens. Fireflies hide by day in lawns and wild portions of the yard. Incorporate taller grasses in your landscaping. Look at yards with fireflies and determine how they differ from those without.

Firefly flashes make them a charismatic species and their declining abundance is eliminating a great joy in life. They call public attention with their rapid response to environmental changes. They are a good bioindicator identifying mismanagement of the world for which we should take care responsibility. 

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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Northern Blue Photographer John Wilkie

By Ranger Steve Mueller

People connections from our past create joyous memories that live even when they are gone. John Wilkie was a Detroit foundry worker with whom I had not had contact but good fortune brought us together. 

In the early 1980’s I was participating in botanical research with Dr. Reznicek from the University of Michigan and Don Henson. They were exploring the Upper Peninsula for rare plants and I was along to learn what I could from the experts. My broad interests are not highly proficient with the possible exception for butterflies. 

The Northern Blue butterfly. Photos courtesy of Ranger Steve Mueller.

During field work, I was introduced to many plant species new to me. As we roved, I kept a watchful eye for various butterflies. Most were beauties commonly encountered like the Acadian Hairstreak, Baltimore Checkerspot, and Arctic Skipper. All were thrilling with somewhat obscure caterpillar host plants and showy wildflower nectar sources. 

A small iridescent blue butterfly we had not seen elsewhere was abundant in one location. I excitedly caught it with my butterfly net. It was a Northern Blue butterfly. I kept an individual for scientific proof because it was not known to have breeding populations in Michigan. Mo Nielsen had found one individual at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior far from Michigan’s mainland. It had been found in Minnesota north of the great lake and in northern Wisconsin. Some had drifted over the border from Wisconsin into Michigan’s Dickinson County but breeding colonies were not known in this site and I did not find any there when I visited. 

The Northern Blue butterfly underwing by SJM.

While I was absorbed with the butterfly I found, Dr. Reznicek vocally burst with excitement. He found dwarf bilberry (Vaccinium cespitosum). It’s a minute three-inch-tall heath in the blueberry family. Cecil Billington, in his 1949 book Shrubs of Michigan, listed the species for Michigan but had not collected a specimen for scientific proof. Now 30 some years later, Dr. Reznicek collected verifying evidence as a state record. 

Surprisingly, the butterfly I had collected simultaneously 100 feet away in the central UP required that plant as a larval food host. The DNR listed both as state threatened because little was known about them. I was provided a grant for life history research. My study provided proof the caterpillar depended on the bilberry for survival. 

When its presence became known, John Wilkie contacted me. He was trying to photograph every butterfly species known to Michigan. At the time, I lived in the upper peninsula and John, with camera, made the trip north. He stayed at our home and the next day, we visited the only known Northern Blue breeding colony in Michigan. He acquired the desired pictures and kindly sent me an 8X10 print. 

It was a wonderful joy to share the discovery with an avid butterfly enthusiast and enjoy his company in the evening. He was elderly but full of youthful excitement that comes from pursuing the natural wonders that abound in back country wild areas that hold remnants of the unknown. Within weeks of driving home, processing his pictures, and sending me the print, he passed away. This was the last species he was able to capture on film. It was a pleasure to assist in his quest. 

My work with Northern Blue research continued. More extensive study ensued for the presence of the bilberry and some new locations were discovered. I canvased sites in hopes of finding the butterfly. I went to the McCormick Wilderness I had wanted to visit but had never explored. I hiked its back country and happened upon a Northern Blue. It was female so I followed her expecting she might lead me the bilberry that was unknown in that location. The butterfly’s plant search for egg laying, helped me discover a new location for this plant special to her and for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. 

On wilderness treks one can happen upon new discoveries of significance. Preservation of wilderness is essential to sustain unique nature niches. They also provide opportunity to develop new acquaintances with people like John Wilkie who enrich our lives. Though he is gone, he lives vividly in my experiences. 

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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Chosen wild edibles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies. Photo by Mike Moran.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies. Photo by Mike Moran.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Adult butterflies are general nectar feeders but their kids require carefully chosen wild edibles. One Michigan butterfly is a predator with its larva feeding on aphids but the rest are vegetarians. At Ody Brook the adult Harvester perches on sunlit leaves at the edge of a forest opening we call the Woodcock Circle. When we claimed responsibility for biodiversity enhancement, this small clearing was used by American Woodcocks for their mating display. A five-acre neighboring field was annually planted with field corn. Soon that acreage was allowed to return to wildflowers, shrubs, and trees to increase wildlife survival and woodcocks moved there. 

Caterpillars require a specialized diet with some needing a specific plant Species, Genus, or plant Family. Most will die if not able to utilize a unique diet. Referring to host plants means larval food plants. Without the correct larval foods, we cannot expect to experience the variety and beauty of scale winged adults known as Lepidoptera flitting about yards. The adults visit a broad variety of flowers with sweet nectar. 

One of the first butterflies in spring to eclose from an overwintering pupa is the sky-blue Spring Azure that is the size of a quarter. It utilizes dogwood shrubs for egg laying and caterpillars feed on the shrub’s flowers. Other early fliers are the Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak that are much larger and hibernate as adults. They can be found on the wing during sunny warm March days in the 50’s F. The orange and black colored commas have a silver crescent on the underside of the hindwing. Expect them in habitats with nearby nettles or elms as hosts. Mourning Cloaks seek willows and aspens. The hibernators lay eggs on carefully chosen hosts. After they grow through the larval stages and transform to adult flutterbys, they float on air through our yards. 

To encourage the well-known Monarch, milkweed is needed because that is the only host acceptable for their young. By allowing milkweed plants to thrive, expect the large orange butterflies to grace the neighborhood. Another orange butterfly that looks similar to the Monarch but is slightly smaller is the Viceroy. Its young depend on willows and aspens. 

During early June, the first Viceroy adult with black lined veins on orange wings takes flight in the vicinity of willows. The miniscule caterpillar that hatched from an egg in autumn anchored a willow leaf to the stem with silk so it would not fall. The leaf became a shelter for the 1/8-inch caterpillar for the winter. With new spring leaf growth, the larva progressed through life stages to flash its orange beauty. 

The large Red-spotted Purples raise young on aspens and wild cherries. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies with brilliant yellow wings edged with yellow dots on black margins.  It has wide black stripes that get narrower from the head end toward the tail. Their larva host plant is a cherry tree. 

Many of the 150 species of Michigan butterflies prefer open sunlit habitats where wildflowers abound. Many plants die to the ground in fall but have roots that survive the cold months. Others produce seeds that become the next generation attracting butterflies to brighten our neighborhood landscape. 

All species of fritillaries require violet leaves as their host and feed under the cover of darkness. We see the adults in summer daylight but the caterpillars are almost never seen because they wait until after sunset to crawl from the ground to feed on leaves. 

We might think, “what’s for me?” when we hear wild edibles. There are many edibles for us but the focus here has been on host plants chosen for caterpillars. You are encouraged to help wildlife survive by allowing a portion of your yard to support native plants needed by butterfly larva. Welcome butterflies by avoiding use of pesticides and herbicides. Enjoy and learn butterflies firsthand by joining one or all of the four West Michigan Butterfly Association counts to help you recognize butterflies and their caterpillar nature niche host plants. Google the West Michigan Butterfly Association or contact Ranger Steve for butterfly outing details. Come enjoy Spicebush Swallowtails on sassafras or Pearl Crescents among asters as we carpool to several habitats.

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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Fallen Cottonwood

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Strong winds howled as I sat by a window at midnight in my writing room. Though I should have felt secure, I was uneasy. No trees were near that would crush the roof and me. A few weeks previous, a large black cherry tree leaned toward the house and I was troubled it might deliver a crushing blow. I hired a tree service to remove that tree before it could crush the carport and enter the house uninvited above my writing chair. 

The tree inspector showed me three holes at the base of the tree and agreed, “Yes, this tree should be removed.” That week two workers brought a truck with a lift bucket that carried one man with a chainsaw to the tree top where he brought down branches and finally the main trunk in sections. They safely prevented damage to our home before frightening winds did more than caress forest trees. 

The workers removed several trees along the power line that stretched through the woods to the neighbors from our front yard utility pole. The neighbors told me they frequently experienced power outages and the utility company said the wire to their house only had a three-foot right of way unlike the wire from the road to the pole in our yard that had a 15-foot right of way for tree clearing. 

It was good fortune I hired the tree clearing before the end of spring when storm activity is prone to increase. Two large sugar maples stand fast and strong near the house. Neither has given us reason to anguish because we are not in an area prone to tornados or hurricanes but people killing storms have occurred in nearby communities during past decades. We maintain an open yard so other trees are a safe distance from the house. 

Living with nature’s temperamental behavior is something we prepared for and anticipated. During the 22 inches of rain received during a short period in the fall 1986, we discovered our foresight was correct regarding whether it was safe to purchase our home. I looked at what I thought would be the streams water level if the 100-year deluge arrived. Within a decade after our home purchase the flood came. We incurred no long-lasting damage.

Flooded driveway at Ranger Steve’s home in 1986.

Outside I waded the stream and stood chest deep in flowing water that during fall was normally two inches deep in a narrow stream channel. The stream had become about 200 feet wide and the driveway near the road was under water. Patrolling police attempted to drive up the drive to check on us but stopped when they thought the water might flood their engine. They wisely backed to safety. 

During a recent wild windy night, a storm front passed and was followed by five inches of rain. The floodplain confined the torrent that moved downstream from Little Cedar Creek to join Cedar Creek, the Rogue River, and the Grand River where floodwater would inundate homes built within the flood zone. Whether those people retained high school earth science lessons about 100-year floods or anticipated safe purchase is obscure. 

After the storm, I walked Ody Brook trails to check for fallen trees. Some of the ash trees killed by the emerald ash borers a few years ago were down and required chainsaw removal from paths. We named a pond Walden’s Pond after our grandson. He is now almost three and has not been to grandpa and grandmas to inspect his pond because of the stay-at-home order to protect his life from COVID-19. Soon he will walk around Walden’s Pond.

There he will discover a large cottonwood tree with a Wood Duck nest box that is no longer standing. The tree fell across the pond and Pond Loop Trail. The winds laid the tree over the south end of the pond near the dam that holds water for slow release into the brook trout stream. The powerful tree crash dislodged the nest box where it remains in the pond. Soon it will be retrieved to determine if ducklings were killed by the spring storm. The nest box appears mostly in tack and when repaired will be erected again. This time it will be placed on a post in the pond to prevent squirrel nesting. When the house was affixed to the tree three years ago, squirrels claimed it. In the pond, use will be restricted for tree cavity duck nesting. 

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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American Redstart

By Ranger Steve Mueller

American Redstart. Photo by Ranger Steve Mueller.

Flamboyant. From tree branches this beauty displays glistening black with flaming red orange under its wings. The American Redstart is a third the size of a Red-winged Blackbird. An eye glint announces pride as its bill opens with song bursts. Its black back and folded wings conceal orange red that is seen from a front view. A splash of red glows like hot coals midway on black wings. The base of the tail radiates the same warm color. 

When I explore forests, red pigmented feathers capture my eye among its black plumage. Even the bill, legs, and feet are black. The only variance from black and red is its white belly. Females look similar to the males but the red is replaced with yellow. 

The redstarts fill a nature niche primarily in large contiguous forests where it pursues flying insects instead of hunting in small woodlots. It behaves like flycatchers by darting from branches to capture aerial insects. In the forest, with high activity it hovers among vegetative growth seeking spiders and insects in trees and shrubs.

Second growth forests of maple and aspens create suitable habitat and allow for redstart abundance provided the trees stands remain extensive. The need for large contiguous forests prevent it from nesting in urban areas. We most frequently enjoy them during migration when they stop to feed among town’s dispersed trees. 

In the late 1800s it was abundant throughout southern Michigan but was displaced when forests were harvested and replaced with agricultural farms. Now nesting is reduced in southern Michigan but it is one of the most abundant warblers found in northern Michigan. 

Optimum viewing in our areas is along extensive forested floodplains or in forests bordering Lake Michigan. Farther north it occupies both moist and dry maturing deciduous forests with woody understory growth. The redstart utilizes a greater habitat variety than more specialize warbler species. We get to enjoy its occurrence more frequently than many other warblers because it flits about trees in state parks and campgrounds.

It comes into view when darting after flying insects. Watch for its behavior of tail spreading that exposes the flaming color at its base. Like the warm season, this bird spends limited time with us. Encounters are mostly during spring and fall migration. During its spring travel, explore woody understory vegetation among branches before new leaves fill the habitat and conceal the bird. 

After settling in extensive woods, nests are constructed from 5 to 30 feet high in trees and sometimes higher. I have yet to discover one. It amazes me how difficult it is to locate nests but nesting success would be low if they could be easily found. Nests are built in tree branch forks toward the outer canopy.

Active northward travel in our area is primarily during May. By the end of the month breeding and egg laying begins. The first half of June is occupied with incubation so they are not as commonly viewed. One egg is laid daily until they have a clutch of 4 eggs. Then incubation commences. If nesting is successful, young are fed insects and spiders rich with protein. Growth is rapid and young fledge the nest before the end of June. When a nest is lost to predators or weather, a second brood results with young leaving the nest in July. 

Brown-headed Cowbirds patiently watch adults to locate nests and lay their larger egg in the nest near a forest edge. The redstart will feed the cowbird young that hatches rapidly and is large enough to get most of the food. Redstart nestlings frequently do not survive in parasitized nests. Greatest chances for nest success are in the interior forest because cowbirds typically avoid deep woods. Cowbirds are an open habitat species.

Fall departure for adults and young begins in August with the largest numbers moving to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America in September. Active insects abound in warm winter climates where redstarts reside while most of us nestle down for the cold months in our homes. 

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

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Sunset’s mood

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Sunset’s mood

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.

Posted in Featured, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Fins and Fish Scales

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