Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Universe in a Sheet of Ice

This morning the low spots in the parking lot were covered with sheets of ice.  You may just see a pattern of bubbles, cracks, and the underlying asphalt.  To me it looks like an image of deep space - stars, galaxies, nebulae, comets, all dancing through the void.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank You Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe!

Last week, the Isabella Conservation District received approximately 200 thousand dollars from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe

As part of an agreement with the State of Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe distributes 2% of its earnings from electronic gaming at its two casinos to local governments and schools.  To get any of this money, government agencies and schools have to submit a grant proposal that details what they propose to do, how it will benefit the local and tribal community, and includes a detailed budget for the project.

The money that the Isabella Conservation District received will allow us to run a community household hazardous waste disposal program and a tire disposal program in 2016.

More importantly, from my perspective, it will also allow our Environmental Education Program to operate for another year.  This means that we will be able to provide classroom programs on environmental and conservation education in local schools through the 2016 - 17 school year.  Since 2009, our programs have been presented to over thirty thousand students in the local schools.   This year I expect to provide more than 400 classroom programs, and expect to do the same for the 2016 - 17 school year.

Thank you to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council and all employees of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe who support the Isabella Conservation District Environmental Education Program!

Chi Miigwetch!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Birds of a feather...

Right now I am doing lots of presentations about birds and their adaptations.  The first thing I do during this presentation is ask the students "How do we know if an animal is a bird?"  This gets a bunch of different responses.

A bird has wings!

I have wings, but I am not a bird...

A bird has a beak!

I have a beak, but I am not a bird...
A bird can fly!

I can fly, but I am not a bird...

Sooner or later, someone will say that a bird has feathers.  I challenge students to come up with an animal that has feathers that is not a bird - the responses are interesting.  Yesterday alone I heard the following answers: a duck (bird), a penguin (bird), an ostrich (bird), a bear (not a bird - does not have feathers).

Every living creature that has feathers a bird.  Let me say that again.  Every single living creature that has feathers is a bird - every single one.

Once we have figured out that a bird is an animal with feathers, we finally start to discuss the different roles that feathers are adapted for.  We usually come up with five different roles.

1)  Feathers give birds the ability to fly. Although not every bird has this ability - no birds would be capable of flight without feathers.

A Herring Gull flying over Lake Superior

An Osprey soaring over Lake Champlain

2)  Feathers keep birds warm.  Fluffy down feathers trap heated air close to a bird's body, allowing them to retain much of their body heat.  In cold conditions, micro-muscles attached to each feather will fluff up the feathers to trap even more air.

This Junco doesn't mind the cold

Snowy Owls don't migrate south to avoid the cold - they come south to find more food.

3) Feathers keep birds (mostly) dry.  The structure of outer contour and flight feathers prevents most water from reaching the fluffy down feathers underneath.  Aquatic birds such as ducks and geese have glands that produce oils.  The birds spread these oils on their feathers through the process of grooming - making themselves even more waterproof.

A Mallard's waterproof feathers keep it warm and dry even on the edge of a frozen river.

A Common Loon dives below the surface after fish.

4)  Feathers help birds stay hidden.  Many birds use their feathers as camouflage.  Sometimes all birds of a particular species will use their feathers as camouflage.  In other species only the females will have dull-colored feathers that help them blend in.

This Barred Owl blends in with the bark of this Eastern Hemlock tree.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds use their dull colors to avoid predators

5)  Birds use their feathers to show off.  In may species, male birds use brightly colored feathers to intimidate rivals and show off to potential mates. 

Male Scarlet Tanagers are shockingly bright red.
A large patch of red and yellow on the shoulder of this Red-Winged Blackbird announces his health to rivals and potential mates.

Can you think of any other roles that a bird's feathers are adapted for?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A blast from the past

One of the local schools that I visit is Winn Elementary.  Way back in 1984 - 85, I was a student in the fourth grade at Winn Elementary.  While looking through a file cabinet yesterday, I came across an artwork that I did when I was a student at Winn.  This drawing was entered into a stamp design contest through the US Postal Service.  I was a big stamp collector at that age - I was also into nature as the coral reef theme shows.  Obviously I didn't win the contest... but I like to think that my drawing skills have improved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Word of Thanks

Today is my birthday.  To my family, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and everyone else who has put up with my nonsense over the past forty years - thanks for everything!  I know how lucky I am.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Nature Geek Vacation Destinations - Aldo Leopold Shack

If you are ever near Baraboo, WI make sure to stop and visit the Aldo Leopold Center and more importantly the Aldo Leopold Shack

The Shack
Leopold is widely regarded as the father of wildlife management and is one of the pioneering figures of environmental conservation.  In 1935 while working as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold purchased a tract of worn out farmland near the Wisconsin River.  For the next 14 years, this piece of land would become Leopold's personal experimental station where he and his family sought to repair the damage done by deforestation, wildfire, and poor farming practices.  Included on property was a run-down chicken coop that Leopold repaired and expanded to use as a cottage during weekend and summer stays at the property - this building became known as "the Shack". 

The land around the Shack looks very different than it did during Aldo Leopold's lifetime
Many of the ideas that Leopold formulated on this site were condensed into his only commercially published book "A Sand County Almanac".  This book is required reading for students of natural resources across the country and should be on everyone's reading list.  Unfortunately, Leopold died of before the book was published; he suffered a heart attack while helping a neighbor fight a grass fire.  The conservation ideas that Leopold championed during his lifetime have inspired generations to conserve and improve natural resources around the world. 

As someone who works to educate others about the natural world and conservation, Aldo Leopold is one of my personal heroes.  It was exciting to visit the site described in "A Sand County Almanac" and see the legacy of Leopold's work.  A special thrill was to sit in a "Leopold bench" in front of the Shack.  Leopold benches are so-named because there are several photographs of Aldo Leopold sitting in benches of this design that he constructed at the site out of scrap lumber.  I have built several of these benches in the past for schools and plan to build more in the future.

Being a nature geek at the Aldo Leopold Shack - near Baraboo, WI

Monday, November 16, 2015