Monday, November 20, 2017

Native Species Profile - Turkey Vulture

I started this post back in April, but never finished it.  It's time to do so... 

People have all sorts of signs that they indicate to note the passing of Winter and the arrival of Spring: the first flowers, the sound of frogs calling, the return of certain species of birds such as the American Robin, Tree Swallow, and Red-winged Blackbird.  Another bird that marks the changing of the seasons with its return is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).  Turkey Vultures are noticeably absent from Mid-Michigan from November to February.  In fact there are zero listing on eBird for Isabella County during the months of December and January.  November (2 sightings) and February (3 sightings) are not much better.

A soaring Turkey Vulture uses columns of warm air to soar.

Turkey Vultures are carrion eaters.  They typically feed on dead animals and will almost never kill their own prey.  They beak is quite weak and although they prefer fresh carcasses, they must usually wait for decay to soften their food enough to pierce the skin of larger animals.

They locate their meal largely by smell - they seem to be one of the few bird species with highly tuned senses of smell.  This sense of smell has proven somewhat useful to humans; turkey vultures will often circle over the locations of gas line leaks, attracted by the smell.  Somewhat morbidly, Turkey Vultures are also attracted by the smells of hospitals and can often be seen flying slowly overhead.

Turkey Vultures are very good at soaring.  They use updrafts of warm air to keep aloft and rarely need to flap their wings.  Instead they appear to wobbly back and forth slowly in the air, maintaining altitude with the slightest updrafts.  They can easy be identified by their slow sometimes wobbly flight.  Another thing that can help identify them in flight is the wide v-shaped position of their wings.

Turkey Vulture - note shallow V-shape made by its wings.

The Turkey Vulture is a fairly large bird, weighing approximately 4 pounds (2 kilograms) and having a wingspan measuring up to 70 inches (1.77 meters).   From beak to tail it measures up to 32 inches (0.81 meters).  It is not a beautiful bird, its reddish head is mostly bare of feathers so that the bird can easily keep it clean - bits of carrion are less likely to stick to bare skin than feathers. ( The bare heads may also help with regulating the bird's body temperature.)  The bird's body is covered with dark brown and black feathers.  It has a pale beak and legs.

Turkey Vultures have a very extensive range.  They are found year-round from the southeastern united States down to the Tip of South America.  In Summer their range carries them as far north as the prairie provinces of Canada.  A few birds make it as far north as James Bay.  Turkey Vulture's can be found in habitats ranging from open woodlands, to fields, mountains, deserts, and cities.

A Turkey Vulture sniffs around the remains of a deer carcass.

Basic Information
Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura
Size:  25-32” long,
          66-70” wingspan

Habitat:  open woodlands, fields, mountains, deserts, cities

Eats:  mostly carrion (dead mammals, birds, fish), insects, decaying fruit; typically does not kill own prey

Nest:  on the ground, cliffs, mammal burrows, hollow logs, abandoned hawk or heron nests, abandoned buildings

Friday, November 17, 2017

Photography (03 - 16 November 2017)

 Here are a few photos that I have taken since November 1st.

Full Moon - Alma, MI (03 November 2017)

Cattails at Chipp-A-Waters Park - Mt. Pleasant, MI (06 November 2017)

American Beech and pedestrian bridge - Mt. Pleasant, MI (06 November 2017)
Blue skies and golden leaves - Mt. Pleasant, MI (06 November 2017)

Milkweed seeds at the Isabella Conservation District office - Mt. Pleasant, MI (10 November 2017)

Quaking Aspen trunks at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy - Mt. Pleasant, MI (10 November 2017)

Mushrooms and moss - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Buck rub at Chipp-A-Waters Park - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Chinquapin Oak leaves - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Jack Pine - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)
Swamp White Oak leaf and moss - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Scots Pine - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Closeup of a buck rub - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Cattail - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Motherwort - Mt. Pleasant, MI (16 November 2017)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

2017 Deer Deason

Today is opening day for the 2017 Michigan firearms deer season.  Good luck on a safe and successful hunt!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The witch of November come stealin'

Today marks the 42nd Anniversary of the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the most famous shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

On the evening of 10 November 1975, the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was approaching Whitefish Point, MI with a full load of taconite (iron ore) in a Lake Superior storm.   Despite the hurricane force winds, the 729 foot ship did not appear to be under distress before it sank suddenly at 7:10 PM.  All twenty-nine men aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald perished.  To this day, the exact cause of the ship's sinking is unknown.

 The ship was commemorated by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".

The wreck site was visited by dive teams in 1989, 1995, and 1995 to survey the site and collect artifacts.  The ship's bell was recovered during the 1995 dive.  The bell was restored and now rests at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, MI. For more information on the Edmund Fitzgerald visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Although the Edmund Fitzgerald is the Great Lakes' most famous shipwreck, 1975 was not the first time that "the gales of November" turned deadly.  A November storm in 1913 claimed the lives of approximately 250 sailors, sank 12 ships, and foundered approximately 30 more ships across the great lakes.  This massive storm which lasted for nearly five days became known as the "Big Blow" or the "White Hurricane' among other names.

On 11 November 1940, a storm known as the "Armistice Day Blizzard" sank three freighters in Lake Michigan with the loss of 66 lives.  The same storm caused the deaths of dozens of duck hunters along the Mississippi River.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leave those leaves alone!

Did you ever notice that when you enter the woods during the fall, there is no effort being made to remove every leaf the second it hits the ground?  Yet if you look around your own neighborhood, or even your own yard, fallen leaves seem like an enemy that must be eradicated.  Homeowners and landscapers sally forth armed with brooms, rakes, and leafblowers to do battle with nature!


Fallen leaves are meant to be returned to the soil.  Insects, isopods, millipedes, and other invertebrates shred them and eat them.  Fungi and bacteria decompose the leaves into a rich organic matter known as humus.  This organic matter can then be absorbed by plants, including the trees that originally produced the leaves.  The plants use this organic matter to grow, and (surprise) produce more leaves!  A healthy fertile soil will be rich in organic matter.

Removal of the dead leaves disrupts this cycle of soil building and renewal.  I am not sure whether to laugh or cry when I see people remove all of their fallen leaves from their lawn and then apply fertilizer to replace the nutrients that were included in the fallen leaves.  The same logic applies to grass clippings; they should be left on the lawn after mowing.

Current social norms dictate that homes should have a lush green lawn.  Leaves allowed to pile up may smother the lawn over time before they decay.  So how can the average homeowner both keep their lush green lawn and avoid raking away all the nutrients encased in their fallen leaves?

The lawnmower is your ally in this fight.  Normally I advocate mowing as infrequently (and at as high of a setting) as possible, but in the fall I sometimes use my lawnmower on a daily basis.  My lawnmower is set up to mulch leaves.  There is no bagging mechanism or discharge chute attached; every leaf (and blade of grass) is chopped into tiny bits before falling to the ground.  Some of these small bits blow away, but by mulching the leaves I am able to help accelerate the process of decomposition.  More broken edges means more places for bacteria and fungi to infiltrate the leaf and fully decompose it into the humus that my lawn and I desire.  

Do I mulch all of my leaves?  No, those that fall in the flower gardens are allowed to decay naturally.  They slowly decay over the course of time.  Until they decompose they form a layer of mulch which helps to suppress weed growth.  So my advise to anyone who wrings their hands and frets as soon as the leaves begin to fall...  Relax and leave those leaves alone.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Native Species Profile - Shaggy Mane

Fungus can be very difficult to identify.  There are many species; estimates range to more than one million species!  Many species can only be differentiated by looking at small obscure features.  Identification can be extremely important if you want to forage and eat wild mushrooms.  Many edible species have toxic look-alikes. If eating wild mushrooms, a incorrect identification could result in serious illness or even death.

That being said a few species are incredibly easy to identify.  One of the fits the category of easy to identify is the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus).  This mushroom is one of several species lumped together as "inky caps".  These mushrooms have caps that decompose rapidly into an inky black fluid.  Also known as the Shaggy Inky Cap is the largest of this group at 3 to 8 inches tall with a cap up to 6 inches across.

Shaggy Mane - note how edge of cap has yet to separate from the stalk

Shaggy Mane mushrooms have white caps with shaggy white, brown, or black scales.  The edge of the cap is initially attached to the mushroom's stalk.  As the the mushroom grows, the edge of the mushroom detaches leaving a white ring around the stalk.  Up to this point, the cap is roughly cylindrical, but as it ages it takes on more of a bell shape.  When the mushroom reaches full maturity, the edges begin to decay.

Shaggy Mane - note bell-shaped cap with inky black edge

Shaggy Mane - note "inky" decayed cap

Shaggy Manes are saprophytic - meaning that they decompose dead organic matter.  This species is commonly found in lawns, along roadsides and other disturbed areas; it often grows on leaf litter, fine woody debris (such as wood chips), and occasionally on animal dung.  The species if found across North America and Europe and has been introduced in other locations around the world.

A Shaggy Mane mushroom emerges from leaf litter at the edge of a woods.

The Shaggy Mane is considered a "choice edible".  However, it is best collected and consumed before the cap turns inky.  In Mid-Michigan the Shaggy Mane has not toxic look-alikes so identification is relatively easy.  However, when consuming any foraged food (especially mushrooms), I recommend confirming identification with multiple sources before consuming.  Mistakes are simply not worth the risk.

Basic Information

Shaggy Mane
Coprinus comatus

Size:  3 - 8" tall; 2 - 6" across

Habitat:  lawns, roadsides, disturbed areas, compacted ground; decomposes organic matter including woody debris, leaf litter, and animal dung

Color:  white with white to brownish (or blackish) scales; decomposes to form an inky black liquid

Bloom Time:  late summer to fall

Monday, November 6, 2017

Sparring bucks - Trail Cam pictures (18 October 2017)

I went out about a week ago and retrieved the memory cards from my trail cameras.  Both cameras are located along busy wildlife trails.  As Fall progresses toward Winter, the animals have become more active in their search for foods.  In the case of White-tailed Deer, they have also become increasingly active with the approach of mating season.  Also known as "the rut", mating season for White-tailed Deer is preceded by a period in which bucks actively seek does and compete with other bucks for mating opportunities.

As I tell students, "Bucks have antlers to fight, with other bucks, over girls."  This always gets a laugh.  Despite all the time I have spent in the woods, I have never seen this in person, but now I have captured it on a trail camera.

This small buck appears to be watching something in the distance...

It's another similar-sized buck.  The two size each other up for a moment...

Once they lock antlers, the goal is to push each other around until one buck decides that the other buck is more powerful and flees.

Most bucks will typically only engage a buck of similar size - a small buck will typically not attempt to fight a much-larger buck, but will submit without conflict.  Even if that occurs, the large buck may chase away smaller bucks in order to preserve his own mating opportunities.  The small bucks above would probably have fled immediately if confronted by the buck shown below.