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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

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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Aspen Clones

Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Aspen tree clumps growing close to others change color at slightly different times. Within a single tree clump, the leaves often harmoniously change color at the same time. Weather and micro-climate might exert influence but so will the genetic makeup of the plants. 

Aspen trees are individuals much like each person is an individual with unique characteristics. You might look at an aspen tree and assume all trees are the same. That is like looking at a person and assuming all people are the same as every other individual. 

In the case of aspens, you might not be in complete error. A human family with identical twins has two individuals with the same genetic composition. Well almost. After egg fertilization, cells reproduce to develop the individual. In the process, some slight changes are likely to occur with gene inversion, duplication, or gene exchange on a DNA strand. These are minor but can bring about slight variation between the twins.

Aspens produce seeds but few survive. Growing conditions with proper moisture, temperature, and soil conditions must be present during seed dispersal. Mature seeds are abundant and easily blown in the wind. Most seeds land in locations that are not adequate to allow them to remain viable. Seeds sprout immediately and if conditions are not ideal they die. Most seeds become food for insects, fungi or some other organism.

Cloning from roots is the aspen tree’s primary means of reproduction. New stem shoots grow from long lateral roots and can rise quite a distance from the parent tree. They have the same genetic constitution as the original stem that sprouted from a seed. Characters like leaf shape, branching structure, disease resistance, pigment production, and timing for seasonal change are the same for each shoot in a clone. 

Environmental conditions like sun exposure, soil moisture, and nutrient supply affect various shoots of the same plant causing some variation as they respond to growing conditions. 

Two plants near each other that developed from different seeds will have unique characteristics like our family siblings. When they leaf out in the spring or change color in the fall, color intensity may vary. Fall colors might be different from one clump to another. This is evident when two clones are viewed during the spectacular fall color pageant. We can recognize identical clone individuals from neighboring clones at this time of year. 

Aspens are in the willow family and have male and female flowers on separate trees. All of the flowers in a clone will be of the same sex because members of the clone are genetically identical. 

When a seed establishes, it requires adequate moisture. Too much will facilitate fungal growth or drowning. Too little can cause desiccation. A surviving seedling will spread by cloning in a well-lighted habitat. New shoots are “sun loving” and cannot tolerate shade. An original stem can produce a mega-organism with hundreds of stems from root suckers having the same unique genetics. Stems in an identical clone will have slightly different nature niche adaptations from neighboring clones. 

Fire sweeping through and removing above ground stems creates sunny habitat for new stem sprouts. It is a fire adapted tree species that survives fire catastrophe and clear-cut logging. 

Aspens are thought to be among the largest individuals of living creatures. A particular stem is not as large as a redwood tree but its extensive number of stems from a single root creates more biomass than the redwood. 

Aspens might also be the oldest creatures on Earth attaining an age of more than 8,000 years. The tree stems do not normally live two centuries but the roots persist and continue to produce new stems. 

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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Spring and Summer Azures

Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

An azure sky captivates us on clear sunny warm days. Tiny pieces of sky flit nearby as we tend the garden, walk the woods, and field edges. Notice the tiny blue wings carry the Spring Azure butterfly on what might seems like an aimless journey. 

Their multifaceted eyes capture color drawing them to other blue butterflies and to flowers where they feed on nectar. They are able to locate plants essential to feed their offspring. Dogwood and viburnums shrubs are important. Adults lay eggs on developing flowerheads where the eggs hatch to feed. 

Eggs are laid singly and scattered throughout the habitat on host plants. The adult blue is about size of a dime when wings are folded over its back. The underwing appears light gray with black spotting. When it opens it wings, the upper sky azure flashes blue beauty. Males are brighter blue than females. Notice the female has a wider dark band along wing’s edge. 

As June approaches, the spring azure become less abundant and summer azures emerge. Summer azures gray underwing spots are not dark or bold. Spring Azures have a more distinctive zig zag line along the hind wing border. The differences between the two species are minor and make it difficult to distinguish them apart. 

For decades the nearly identical butterflies were thought to be the same species with slightly differing appearing spring and summer forms. Many butterflies have variable spring and summer color forms that differ depending on temperature during development. It was discovered the “spring azure form” did not produce a summer form as a second brood. Instead it stayed in the chrysalis until the following spring. Scientists studying anatomy of wing scales discovered unique wing scale structures differed between the two species. 

Mysteries of inhabitants of our yards abound. We might expect there are just two species of the tiny blue azures but not so. There are additional azures including one in our area called the cherry gall azure. Biodiversity of species with specialized nature niches continue to demonstrate amazing adaptations. 

Beyond the azure complex, the Silvery Blue butterfly has more iridescent deep blue upper wings with tan underwings. Instead of scattered dark spots on the underwing, it has a single row of black spots circled with white that arc across the underside. The Silvery Blues like other blues have a short adult life of about one week. During that time, they seek legumes where they lay eggs. We only get to see these iridescent blues when adults are on the wing during a few weeks of the year. Males emerge first.

The Federally Endangered Karner Blue butterfly resides in our area and has a deep blue upper wing with an orange underwing band along wing’s edge that is absent on Silvery Blues, Spring and Summer Azures. Its larval host plant is restricted to one species—Wild Blue Lupine.

As summer solstice arrives, another blue butterfly appears. The Eastern Tailed Blue has a gray underwing with similar black dotted pattern like azures but bears a small orange patch and a tiny tail projecting from the hind wing. When viewed from above, tiny black dots appear along the hind edge of the wing near the tail. 

It might seem like few butterfly species share habitat with us but about 50 species live at Ody Brook and perhaps dozens share your residence. By encouraging native plants to thrive, you can enhance opportunities for butterfly biodiversity during a time when wildlife are having difficulty surviving. How we behave and promote healthy living conditions around our homes is critical to a healthy environment for life on Earth. 

Manicured lawns are a sight to behold but are sterile for supporting native butterflies struggling to survive where native host plants are excluded. Make the effort to support native plants and animals. Enjoy the beauty and life found in wild habitats by allowing native species to share your yard. Be a force helping wildlife.

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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Seek the common

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

Venture to a willow thicket and enjoy its rich beauty of sights and sounds. Pussy willows already came and went this year. Willow species enchant the wet hollow in the middle of the old field. A large willow tree stood sentinel in the field when the rest was farmed. The field was not easily accessible and in the late 1980’s was abandoned.

Field corn was grown but now the isolated field has reverted to the wild. A half-mile long tractor trail through the woods is filled with encroaching vegetation. On high ground, a mature oak woods provided nesting habitat for the Ovenbird that calls “teacher, teacher, teacher” well into summer and persists calling throughout the day. It is a small warbler that builds a unique nest that looks like a Dutch oven. The well-hidden domed nest on the ground has a small entrance opening from the side. Only once have I found a nest. 

The bird, though common in mature forests, avoids being seen. Its voice is loud but not many people get to enjoy its subtle beauty that blends with forest floor where it walks to feed. An olive back casts a hint of green but its head boasts the brightest markings. It has a white ring surrounding a piercing black eye. Two black lines streak from the bill over the top of the head bordering orange feathers between them. It is necessary to look carefully to see details on the tiny bird about the size of an egg with a tail. Binoculars help capture details.

Feathers that blend well with forest floor contrast with its white underside. Scattered black stripes on the chest break up the white-feathered underbelly when viewed from beneath. I have taken people bird watching that have never seen the ovenbird despite decades of searching. Books report that the bird sings from the forest floor and I am sure they do but that is not where I usually encounter them. 

During a previous Memorial Day weekend exploration, I advised viewers to look on branches about ten feet above ground for the songster. Leaves had already expanded making it a bit more challenging to locate the bird but we succeeded. Its teacher, teacher, teacher song echoed through the forest. The loud call appeared to come from the ground and trees. Difficulty locating the mysterious location helps protect the bird from predators.

I have lead guide tours for decades to help others locate the singing bird. Guidebooks advise looking on the ground and I have found them there but less frequently than above. A woman on my walk was elated to finally see one after years of seeking it but never locating one. She discovered the common bird was in a different location from the search image she had been taught to seek. She thanked me profusely. 

One should never get locked into narrow focus even when the experts tell us where to look. The joy for me has always been exploring to discover animal behavior on my own. Head out using advice from books to help you but do not become overly dependent on them. Realize books do not always relate the most accurate information. Many skilled hunting friends are sharper than me but not always. We keep learning from new experiences in the wild and find what we thought we knew is not always how things work in nature niches. 

After exiting the old tractor trail through the woods and entering what was a cultivated field, a willow and alder thicket now traverses its low wet center. The Common Yellowthroat claims the habitat for its singing, mating, and nesting. Now that willows have mostly completed flowering, seeds are forming, and leaves hide branches, the yellowthroat announces its presence. Like the ovenbird, it is one of the louder warblers.

It is willing to show itself and will investigate you. Its song is a loud “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity”. A bright yellow breast helps us locate it among shrubs. It has a bold black mask that wraps around the face over the bill. The yellow chin and throat below offer great visual contrast. Above the dark mask is a white band. Though the rest of the bird’s pattern is a subdued olive like the ovenbird’s, its bright front is obvious and easy to locate. It is not shy and can be located in most willow thickets. Seek the common in woods and thickets. Do not let spring pass you by. For many of us, the outdoors is more enticing than phones, television, or electronics games.

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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What kind of squirrel is this?

Kelly Roush, of Cedar Springs, sent us this photo of an odd-looking squirrel. At first glance, it almost looks like a chipmunk. But it’s not. It’s called a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. “He was in my backyard eating the birdseed that was on the ground,” she said. “I’ve never seen one or heard of one.”

A thirteen-line ground squirrel enjoys some birdseed.

We passed the photo on to Ranger Steve Mueller and he agreed—it is a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. He said they are a grassland species, and he used to see them in the grassland at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, as well as at his home at Ody Brook. “Too much shrubby vegetation grew…I have been clearing habitat at Ody Brook and might get them again as I open it more,” he said.

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Left Unsaid

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We did yard work in the spring as the grass greened and our planted flowers began blooming. We anticipated the flowering crab apple blooming around Mother’s Day. Dad lamented kids cutting through the backyard in spring because it killed the grass. They cut through our yard to pick me up on the way to school. 

The grass on wet ground during spring could not withstand the trampling like it could in summer or fall. We had a dog that was on a rope during the day while we were gone. He defecated in the corner by the back of the garage and it required considerable pick up in the spring. We buried it by the fence at the back of the yard.

The neighbor living behind us was a police officer and his daughter was my age. He made a greenhouse covered with plastic sheeting to start plants early so he could plant them in his yard. His greenhouse was about three feet tall and large enough to supply the plants wanted for vegetables and beauty. 

A couple houses down the street, an elder neighbor had the most beautiful yard of flowering plants and neighborhood kids were not allowed to cut through his yard. Most yards were fairly small and provided enough space for general play but were not large enough for baseball. 

The wonderful large five-acre wetland across the street from our home was where we waded to find frogs, crayfish and many wonders. It was tiled and drained between our church and the parsonage. I was saddened with the loss. I recall John Scott cutting through the wetland and losing his shoe in the mud.

Not only was his shoe lost forever but so was the multitude of life that serenaded us with frog songs, noisy dragonfly wings, calling swallows and I am sure buzzing mosquitoes. The drained field became a haven for activity where our church installed a ball field. We flew kites and played frisbee there. Mr. Schlutz, who attended our church, did the tiling construction work, dug up a large glacial erratic rock that was placed by the church drive entrance. It was directly across the street from our house. We enjoyed the rock for climbing and viewing for the entire time we lived there. The rock still persists. He also made a hill in the field that became a sledding hill for many years before being leveled. 

Memories from childhood are good and bad. Perhaps most people enjoyed the flat grassy field with a ball field more than the wetland but I missed the piece of wild that disappeared. There were small fields between homes where we explored nature but they disappeared as new homes were added to our neighborhood. Now the neighborhood has no wild lots for children to discover life’s nature niches. 

By the time I was in upper elementary, it was necessary to walk two blocks to the city limit where fallow farm fields were wild. They quickly became residential developments. I could not understand how that could happen because they were outside the city limit in the country where I thought it had to remain farmland or wild fields. So began my education about urban sprawl that engulfs life for our ever-growing human population. 

By the time I was in high in school, I decided a two-child family was my limit in order to share creation with the abundance of life we inherited rather than crowd life off the planet. On Friday nights, I watched Walt Disney nature shows and the Flintstones on our new color TV with dad and brothers. I marveled at the wildlife depicted and decided on a career connected to helping wildlife survive with us. 

Those were pleasant evenings with dad while mom went bowling with her team after we ate a fish dinner. Dad is gone and I wish I could tell him how much I enjoyed those evenings. I recall telling him that I am sure I would have things to share with him after he was gone and it would be sad not to able to tell him. He told me not to leave things left unsaid because we never know if he might hear them. Dad, I miss the nature niche across the street and the time with you. Thank you for taking to me to national parks, boy scout camp, and wild places. 

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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Bill and Gator’s squirrels

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller

Bill Caldwell received three young flying squirrels from a logger that cut a tree. The mother was killed when the tree fell. Bill was able to secure a permit from the MI-DNR to keep and raise the squirrels in his high school classroom. It is illegal to rescue “orphaned” wildlife. A primary reason is because keeping them alive frequently fails. If successful, the wildlife has not learned essentials for living on their own and death likely results when released. When a person desires to keep the animal, it often becomes a problem in a variety of ways.

When the young animal’s eyes have not opened, success for rearing the “rescued” wildlife is particularly difficult. Licensed rehabilitators have learned the most effective skills for success but still many animals do not survive. Rehabilitators will not accept some species. It is illegal for them to accept some or they might not be able to care for the quantity people find and “rescue.” In most cases the “orphaned” wildlife are not orphaned. Animals like rabbits and deer are left for hours with the adults infrequently returning to nurse them. 

Ray Gates, best known as “Gator,” teaches biology at Cornerstone University. The first time I met Gator, I was leading my college class on a field trip at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC). That was before I made the career change from college instructor to become director at HCNC. My class encountered his college class from Cornerstone that was exploring the exciting wild natural world with Gator. 

He reached into his shirt pocket and displayed a bugged-eye Southern Flying Squirrel with soft fur and skin that stretched from front legs to hind legs that allows it to parachute through the air. Though the squirrels are called “flying” it is better to describe them as gliders. They are capable of directing their travel by how they manipulate skin flaps. An adult flying squirrel is smaller than a chipmunk and is perhaps one of the most truly nocturnal mammals. Gator provided an excellent impromptu lesson on the flying squirrel’s nature niche.

It is a rare opportunity to see one in the wild even though they are common provided adequate nesting cavities are available. I had not seen one at Ody Brook until one night my daughter Jenny Jo and I were leaving the house after dark. She asked, “What is making that sound?” I did not know. We listened and determined the sound was coming from inside one of bird feeders. I lifted the cover and four flying squirrels leaped from the feeder and glided to a nearby sugar maple tree.

One time at HCNC, I was inspecting bluebird houses. One was becoming surrounded by shrubs at the edge of the field. Natural plant succession was changing the habitat making it unsuitable for bluebirds. When I peered inside, I discovered the nest box was being used to rear a litter of flying squirrels. I departed with joy that the nest box was remaining valuable for wildlife. 

Many of us have squirrel stories to share. I could continue with stories about Gray, Fox, and Kaibab squirrels and other squirrel species. This week I received a call regarding young squirrels “rescued” from a tree that was cut down. The logger felt badly and wanted to help them. I was called. My best advice was to return the three squirrels to the location so the mother could rescue them and take them to a new cavity. That might seem like a long shot but the chances for their survival are better there than trying to care for them. 

Once I asked the custodian at HCNC to replace a bluebird nest box that was in poor condition. He placed the old one in the garage. The next morning, I heard noise from the box in the garage. Inside were young bluebirds. I immediately returned the box to the post and the parent returned to successfully fledge the birds. Perhaps the mother squirrel will return to carry the blind, naked, baby squirrels to a new nest cavity. We can be hopeful. 

Wildlife biologists with MI-DNR annually instruct people that want to help wildlife to leave them where they are found. They remind us it is illegal to rescue them and chances for successful rearing and release are poor. To offer the greatest help one should harvest live trees and leave dead hollow ones in the forest for wildlife. Harvesting live trees thins the forest and allows neighboring trees to grow faster with more vigor.

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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Colors of Spring

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

We wait. It is coming. When? Anticipation of green leaves, first garden flowers, butterfly wings, and changing bird feathers from dull winter hues to spring’s festive brightness are all on the way. We can’t wait but we must. 

Unlike many birds who lose their color during the winter, Northern Cardinals retain their bright red feathers. Photo by Hari Krishnan (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

American Goldfinches are displaying patches of yellow that will replace the olive feathers from last fall’s molt. A black cap on males will become prominent. Black wing feathers with white markings will contrast with the sunshine yellow of summer body feathers. Male Northern Cardinals have maintained a bright red all winter. Blue Jays display crystal blues. White-breasted Nuthatches show a splash of orange on the belly under the tail.

Bird colors are often ephemeral pigments that serve survival and breeding functions. The genetic bases of color is sometimes structural instead of pigmental. Diet can cause color variation. House Finch males typically have red feathers but yellow develops instead if they do not eat adequate carotenoids in their diet during feather development. They need a mother to remind them to eat their carrots. Plants and insects often contain the needed carotenoids. 

Melanin is responsible for black, brown, and earth tones. Carotenes provide yellow, orange, and red that please our eyes. Joyful blues on Eastern Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Jays are structural colors instead of pigments. 

Colors provide a variety of functions in bird nature niches. During the non-breeding season, the bright displays used in breeding season to court females or to claim territory could draw the attention of predators when trees are bare. Having bright colors is not as dangerous during breeding season when birds can hide among tree foliage. Birds advertise their presence with songs to females and other males from secluded perches where they can show off bright colors to her or use them to threaten other males in territorial disputes. Some colorful birds sing from exposed perches but many, like warblers and vireos, sing more secretively in the thick tree canopy. 

Why Northern Cardinals stay bright red all year remains a mystery to me. It would seem changing to the rusty color of females during the fall molt would be advantageous. People feeding birds ask me why predators, like the Cooper’s Hawks, always have to take their cardinals? They wish they would pick on duller colored birds. I am sure they take both but we notice the bright red feathers scattered on the ground. 

Blue color appears when feather structure splits short light waves from longer reds and yellow light waves. The blue is reflected outward while reds and yellows are absorbed by melanin and remain hidden to our eyes.

White feathers lack pigments and strength. We notice the new black feathers in fall on European Starlings have white edges creating a spotted appearance. During the winter the white tips wear off and the birds become shiny black by spring. Pigment gives feathers greater strength and durability.

Feather pigments aid important ornamental breeding displays, territory establishment, protective camouflage, and help with heat absorption.

Perhaps your heart has been momentarily stopped when a Ruffed Grouse burst into the air from vegetation near your feet. How often have we walked past birds that remained hidden with stillness? They have many essential behaviors for survival aided by color. 

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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Armchair Naturalist

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I am becoming more of an armchair naturalist and I expect other senior nature explorers are finding that necessary. I appreciate the inquiries and well wishes I have received. On bird count Saturday I planned to arrive for the intro and head home for a family day celebrating Christmas with relatives. I became quite ill Thursday and could not start the bird count. By Sunday, family convinced me I needed to go to hospital emergency at 10:30 p.m. I had been doing well for three weeks but I spent most of our family gathering in bed ill. Bummer.

The good news is I am rebounding on disgusting drugs. I spend more time birding from my window and saw a male Cooper’s Hawk on January 1. Good start for 2019. My friend Greg Petersen drives us to good birding locations. I continue with productive work even though I am limited in too many ways. I am working on completing Bryce Canyon National Park moth research with specimens I brought home for study and hope to complete the project this winter and present results at University of California Davis in July. There are still several field studies in progress. Like other people, I have too much to complete to die soon but cancer might dictate other plans. We each have our own health issues, whether it be heart, diabetes, or one of the multitude. Mine has a different name but yours might be as challenging to contend with. My best wishes for you for 2019 and hope we each make it through another successful, productive, and enjoyable year exploring nature niches.

When first diagnosed at age 47, survival expectations were 1 to 3 years. My multiple myeloma cancer is not curable but treatments can prolong life. I had ten years of smoldering MM before I was disabled and unable to continue employment. I needed a walker because of 7 spinal fractures and now can walk again. My skull is riddled with holes and bones are brittle. I now have ten fractures and getting out of bed can break bones. My last break was the fibula when I stood up during a butterfly survey. With the two bone marrow transplants and the current clinical trial, I have exceeded the survival mean. Survival is now 7 to 8 years. A couple others have been in the program as long but I am in the top survival group. Doctors count from when treatment begins and consider me in year 11. I count from diagnosis and that is 21 years. I have made it to age 68 and University of Chicago hospital oncology staff regularly comment on my longevity. My message is, work to stay positive and continue productive work that is meaningful for life. Chemo is important but I consider support received from you and my work in the sanctuary to enhance biodiversity equally vital. 

Though Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is our private property, we open it for visits. I have always disliked “No Trespassing” signs. We ask people to call or e-mail to let me know when they would like to visit and we request respect for creatures whose homes are entered. Donations to assist with biodiversity enhancement are welcome. We have not charged people for access like a business and we are not a tax-exempt nonprofit. We pay for projects with my pension and I hire youth like people hire high schoolers to shovel their sidewalks. Volunteer assistance is welcome. V&V Nursery across the road has allowed parking for sanctuary access.

People are welcome to walk the sanctuary on their own or with me if timing works. Walk the 1.5 miles of trails where I have placed interpretive signs and perhaps hear the Barred Owl or see the Red-tailed or Cooper’s Hawks. Wild turkeys might show themselves. My hearing has gotten poor from chemo and age so I appreciate help from those that hear birds. If you are only up to birding from a stationary location, come and enjoy the dozen + or – bird species we see at our feeders. I watched a Pileated Woodpecker from my window as it drilled a fifth hole in a cherry tree last week. A Great Blue Heron was flushed at the creek a couple weeks ago.

We are not a nature center with a primary mission of natural history education. I was director at both the local Howard Christensen Nature Center in North Kent County where I encourage you to become a member and at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell. Visit Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids. All provide family and school education programs. Here at Ody Brook our mission is biodiversity enhancement but I lead special focus group programs for a fee.

Enjoy what works for you and the family when exploring the wonders of nature. Bird, insect, and wildflower explorers, deer hunters and anglers are important for helping people learn better ways to enhance biodiversity so a healthy future is present for coming generations of life. 

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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Extinction of meaning

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A new year with new hope. Experiencing the fullness of the outdoors has been a constant theme for my nature niche articles. I will write my 500th article for the newspapers this year and many are archived on line. One needs experiences in nature to fully appreciate the natural world that supports us. Getting outdoors with family, friends, children, and grandchildren to spend time with all creatures great and small is essential. 

Essential for what? That discourse will go far beyond the space allowed. Suffice it to say, “Creation Care is Essential.” There is an inalienable right for us and other species to live without us threating many with extinction. We each do our best to live and thrive. With that comes responsibility to live within our means. 

When we excessively use natural resources such as coal, we threaten our own wellbeing and existence. The fundamental question I encourage we ask is, do we live in a manner that shares the world responsibly with the 30 to 50 million species that sustain healthy ecosystems? Dr. Dave Warners, from Calvin College, along with many scientists have informed us that human activities are causing 50,000 species to go extinct annually. There are practical scientific reasons why this should be prevented but they carry little influence with many people. 

Bryan Pfeiffer recently wrote an essay titled the “Extinction of Meaning” with a focus built around the Poweshiek Skipperling. I asked Bryan if I could use excerpts from his article but limited space available for my column does not allow me to do it justice. Please go to his website www.bryanpfeiffer.com to read his article. He concludes, “Without the skipperling, the prairie will be a prairie depleted. And so, will we ourselves be depleted — not just of a butterfly gone forever, but also of a loss of human awareness and restraint, an extinction of what it means to love and live responsibly with nature.” 

Bryan writes, “Ecosystems provide us with tangible “services” to which we can assign dollar values: mangrove swamps and barrier islands protecting us from coastal floods or storm surges, for example; forests sequestering carbon and easing the climate disaster; or even value in the peace of mind we find in the good company of wildlife. These notions don’t find much traction in the Trump administration. What good is a butterfly that doesn’t turn us a profit?”

The Poweshiek skipperling occurred in the annual NABA Michigan butterfly count reports until a few years ago. It is still found in a few other Michigan sites and Great Lakes Region. The species has disappeared from nearly all sites in its range and likely will be another of the annual 50,000 species to pass into oblivion. 

Butterflies and moths have been a focus of my professional research and there is much to be learned. When I began research in southern Utah, 25 butterfly species were documented for the region and my work increased the known count to 72 species. I discovered a new species of virgin tiger moth that is named Grammia brillians

In our region there is are also many unknowns waiting discovery. I found a breeding colony of Northern Blue Butterflies and the Michigan DNR immediately listed the species as threatened and provided a nongame grant for me to conduct life history research. I found its caterpillar feeds on a Michigan threatened plant species called dwarf bilberry. My limited work on Isle Royale added two additional species to the list of known butterflies in the national park. The point is we are not aware of the inhabitants that share the world with us. 

Bryan wrote about the Extinction of Experience and Meaning stating: “What worries me more is that most Americans know little of — and care even less about — the spectacular natural diversity surrounding every one of us. We are ignorant of the rainbow of warblers — dozens of species — passing through in migration each spring.”

He further quoted my friend Bob Pyle, lepidopterist, writer, and conservationist who refers to “extinction of experience”—our estrangement from the familiar. “If we do not know what lives next to us, we will not notice when it’s gone.” My hope for the new year is that every one of us will have personal experiences discovering the natural world around us. Those experiences will develop into meaning that leads to Creation Care. Have a Happy New Year of discovery. My column will highlight nature occurrences that I hope helps us 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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Insects in Winter

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Winter active insects have different nature niche adaptations for getting warm compared to birds or mammals. Reptiles and amphibians are inactive in winter as are some mammals and many birds migrate to warmer regions. Most insects and other invertebrates are stuck here all winter. Many aquatic insects maintain activity in winter. Their activity along with that of other invertebrates is minimized. 

Even when the ground is covered with snow, terrestrial insects can be seen actively going about their business of walking, jumping, or flying when conditions are suitable. Snowfleas are usually absent until well into the new year. They are not a flea but because they are small, black, and flip summersaults into the air, they have gained the name “flea.” A better name is springtail. When active on sunny winter days, they gather by the tens of thousands, usually at the base of large trees making the snow surface appear black. 

Dark tree bark absorbs heat and radiates the sun’s warmth. Winter sun rays are not restricted from striking the trunk as they pass through the bare canopy branches. Springtails are soil inhabitants that come above ground where the snow has melted around the south side of the tree trunks. They have a small spine on the underside at their tail end that projects forward. It is locked in place at the spine’s tip. 

Simulate the snapping mechanism that allows the springtail to flip summersaults into the air. Place two fingertips from opposite hands together at their very tip and provided increasing pressure until they snap apart. When the springtail lever snaps against the snow or hard surface it sends the lightweight an inch or two into the air to land somewhere nearby. A close view of massive snowfleas appears like jumping pepper on the snow.

Winter stoneflies, flies, and other insects fly on sunny winter days. When you see a name like stonefly with the two parts combined rather than separated to read stone fly, it indicates the species is not a true fly but belongs to a different classification Order. The same is true with snowflea.

To warm adequately to jump, walk, or fly, the organism must be small and usually dark. The dark body allows it to absorb sun energy and the small size allows heat energy to penetrate the body to warm muscles quickly. They also lose heat quickly. During short bursts of sun warmth, they can become active. 

Large hibernating adult insects like the mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies require a longer stretch of warming to bring their muscles to a temperature for flight. I have seen a mourning cloak come out of hibernation in early January but usually they are not active until near the spring equinox. Even so, I watch for them to become active in late February or early March before the sun crosses the equator and gets spring into high gear. 

We might lay naked on the snow on a warm winter day but the sun will not warm us to a comfortable activity temperature by penetrating deep to our muscles like it does for a springtail. Instead, we will quickly suffer from hypothermia and die. I suggest we keep our oversized bodies bundled and lay in the snow making snow-angels. Each species has specialized body adaptations that allow it to function. Body size and color are important. 

Habitat is critical. Aquatic insects, crayfish (can you tell by letter spacing if the crayfish is a true fish or not?), and fish can remain active in chilly liquid water. Their body temperature, though cool, allows activity all winter. Anglers know fish eat in winter but feeding and digestion are slowed in cold water compared to warm season rivers and lakes. Peer into an ice fishing hole from a dark ice fishing shanty where it is like watching TV with fish swimming through the viewing screen. Viewing is best when sunlight penetrates the ice.

Enjoy looking for active insects on beautiful sunny winter days when you rent snowshoes or get free use with your family membership at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. Take the family winter exploring in new ways during the coming months between the winter solstice on December 21 and spring equinox on March 20. There are always interesting things to do outdoors any time of year. Remain active and enjoy active insects.

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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Do you fly?

By Ranger Steve Mueller

When is the last time you flew under your own power and ability? This does not refer to flying in a plane. Many insects are small, lightweight, and have wings that allow them to become airborne. Some newly hatched spiders float miles through the air on a single silk thread and disperse a long distance from their site of origin. Birds take flight on feathers that lift their hollow-boned lightweight bodies. Bats are the only mammals that have mastered the air with flight but “flying squirrels” glide with the aid of skin flaps.

The Southern Flying Squirrel in our area and the Northern Flying Squirrels a bit to the north have skin that stretches between their front and hind legs. They leap into the air without fear of falling with a thud to the ground. They glide like a parasailer. These small squirrels, the size of chipmunks, are among the most nocturnal mammals so they are seldom seen. If you have allowed hollow trees to persist in your yard, it is likely you have these cute bug-eyed squirrels. 

Bats have thin sheets of skin between bones that are analogous to our phalange finger bones and are adept fliers who make a living removing flying insects in our neighborhood. The idea that they will get tangled in our hair has more to do with poor observation than reality. Bats flying near people’s heads are seeking an abundance of insects and an easy nature niche meal. They do not swoop so close to get tangled in hair. 

We are mammals that only fly in our dreams. Perhaps we have limited flight experiences. Remember those youthful days when you jumped from a swing and were airborne for a short flight. I recall once when I was in a leather strap swing seat instead of being on a solid board seat. When it was time to jump, the strap seat held me until the swing reached its peak assent. My body flew upward into the air from a tall swing in a county park. It was a long fall and when I hit the ground it hurt my legs. Flying did not work well that time.

Another flight experience was in dune country where I ran and jumped off a steep sand dune cliff. I sailed free through the air and landed on shifting sand where I slide downhill. My stomach seemed to rise into my chest as I dropped through space and produced a tummy tickler. It was great fun. Many of us have had a similar exciting experience when a roller coaster drops making us feel like we are suspended in air. 

When I sleep, I get to fly through the air in dreams. Karen says it is ridiculous how I fly. She flies “like a normal person” head first with arms outstretched in the manner we have seen superman or other super heroes fly. I fly flat on my back feet first and lift my head to look where I’m going. She says I am a lazy flier. I do not flap my arms or legs but simply move peacefully through the sky. In Karen’s dreams she is often being pursued and flies between utility wires to escape danger pursuing her. Her flights are “James Bond” events. 

My dreams do not indicate where I am going or what I am doing but it is a joy to travel through air viewing the countryside. Not every flight has been a joy. Twice I have fallen to my death in dreams. For whatever reason, I fell from a high building or mountainside and plunged earthward, where I splatted and died instantly. My spirit rose from the lifeless body where I viewed my crushed limp being.

Fortunately, my flights of fancy are usually wonderful excursions of mind and body. It would be nice to flutter like a butterfly through fields, hover like a hummingbird nectaring at a red columbine flower, or flit from tree to tree like a chickadee. 

Birds have lightweight hollow bones, which weigh less than their feathers, making flight possible. Insects are small and able to lift their bodies into the air. For us heavy bodied creatures, we must content ourselves with joyous flight in dreams or maybe with the aid of a hot air balloon that lifts our weight. 

How often do you fly aided by a parachute, hang glider, airplane, or some other device? What is your manner for being airborne? Self-propelled free flight is only a momentary reality in dreams. Enjoy the 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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