Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mother Earth Week 2014 - Aquatic Ecology at the Ziibiwing Center

This week I am participating in the annual Mother Earth Week activities at the Ziibiwing Center.  This will be the 5th year that I have participated int his program.  Every year I bring in buckets of pond water for students to sort through.  The goal of this activity is to show students how the absence or presence of certain aquatic macroinvertebrates can used as indicators of water quality.

I get my water samples from several local ponds in the Mt. Pleasant area.  Unfortunately, most of these ponds were greatly affected by the recent flooding.  Heavy rains resulted in large amounts of sediments being added to the ponds, making the waters very murky.  So instead of getting my samples from permanent ponds, this year I collected water and invertebrates from a series of seasonal ponds located in a local woodland.

Red Maple trees reflected in a seasonal pond

Seasonal ponds offer a unique set of challenges for aquatic life.  Because these ponds only hold water for part of the year it limits the types of species that can be found living in them.  For instance, fish cannot survive in them.  Other species adapt by burrowing into the mud when these ponds dry out and remain dormant until rains flood the ponds again.

Another unique aspect of life in seasonal ponds is the source of food for most of the animals.  Permanent ponds are home to a variety of aquatic plants and algae.  These plants and algae harvest energy from the sun through the process of photosynthesis and form the base of food chains in permanent bodies of water.

However, because seasonal ponds dry out for much of the year these photosynthetic organisms do not grow in seasonal ponds.  Instead dead leaves fill the bottom of shallow seasonal ponds and become the base of the food chain.  These leaves fall from surrounding trees and are shredded and consumed by a variety of organisms in the seasonal ponds. 

Dead leaves form the base of the food chain for many dwellers of seasonal ponds
So what are some of the organisms that you can expect to find in a seasonal pond?

Northern Casemaker Caddisfly

Aquatic Sowbug

Planaria or flatworm

Fingernail or Pea Clam

Pouch Snail

For more information on Aquatic Invertebrate sampling check out these other posts from the past year:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Upcoming Event - Bird Day Celebration (May 3rd)

On Saturday May 3rd the Isabella Conservation District and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways are hosting our third annual Migratory Bird Day Celebration.  This event is from 1:00 PM to 4:00PM and is free to the public.  The Ziibiwing Center is located at 6650 E. Broadway just east of Mt. Pleasant.

Some of the activities for the day include:
  • "The Wonder of Raptors" - a live birds of prey presentation by Wings of Wonder at 2:30 PM
  • Owl Pellet dissection
  • Make an Audubon Bird Call
  • Decorate a bird mask and other crafts
  • Compare your "wingspan" to the wingspan of birds
  • Learn about birdwatching with experts from the Chippewa Valley Audubon Club
  • Handle replicas skulls and eggs of some of Mid-Michigan's native birds
There will be lots of free goodies including stickers and posters.  We will also be giving away door prizes over the course of the afternoon (including International Migratory Bird Day t-shirts) - you must be present to win any door prizes.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wildflowers of 2014 - #4 Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

Despite my best efforts to find blooming wildflowers, the only flowers that I can find so far are those of Skunk Cabbage and a few wind-pollinated trees.  Many of the places where I would normally search for Spring wildflowers look like this:

Many other species of flowers that I would expect to find by now have been delayed by the long Winter.  Some are just poking up out of the soil and others have not begun emerging at all.  Yesterday, I had hoped to reach one of my favorite wildflower areas, an old natural elevated river levee in the Chippewa River floodplain.  This old levee is one of the banks that was left behind when the river shifted its course.  Unfortunately, there was no way that I could get there without a pair of waders - the water level was well over the top of my boots.

I did manage to find one thing in bloom.

Wildflowers of 2014 - #4 Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

A small grove of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) was flowering.

A grove of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
This tree does not rely on animals to aid it in pollination.  Instead it released very large amounts of pollen and relies on the wind to carry that pollen from one flower to another.  Like many trees that are wind pollinated, Quaking Aspen flowers bloom before the tree is leafed out.

Flowers of the Quaking Aspen

Individual flowers of the Quaking Aspen are small but they hang in cylinder shaped clusters called catkins.  While some species of trees contain both male and female flowers, Quaking Aspen trees are either male or female so all the flowers on an individual tree will be either male or female.  Although I am not positive, I think that all of the flowers in these photos are male. 

Quaking Aspen flowers are 1-2 inch long catkins

Because the Quaking Aspen can spread by cloning, not just from seeds, large groves are often composed of trees that are technically one organism sprouting from a shared root system. It would make sense for all of the flowers on these trees to be the same, it is likely that all of these trees are one large organism.

The dangling catkins rely on wind for pollination

Quaking Aspen blooms early in the Spring before the leaves emerge

Male catkins of Quaking Aspen - note the red pollen-covered anthers

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chippewa River Floods - 2014 edition

One year ago Mid-Michigan experienced its most severe flooding in nearly thirty years.  With heavy rains over the weekend, many rivers in our area are again experiencing flooding this April.  The flood waters are not as high, but are still impressive.  Here are some photos that I took over the past two days.

The first few photos were taken on Monday at Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant.

Probably not the brightest idea...  Parks workers taking a Gator through 8 or more inches of water.

The Chippewa River is to the left in this photo.  The tree in the foreground in normally several feet above water on the near bank.

The canoe landing at Chipp-A-Waters Park - the end of the landing is several feet under water at this stage

Eroding riverbank at Chipp-A-Waters Park - there is a planned project to stabilize this bank over the Summer.

The next six photographs are also from Monday.  This set of pictures was taken at Mill Pond Park - downstream from Chipp-A-Waters Park.

Pedestrian bridge over the Chippewa River - If you click the link in the first paragraph you can see a photo from the same vantage point taken one year ago.

Water flowing over the weirs in Mill Pond Park

A large tree trunk stuck on a weir - the trough in the water in front of it was probably more than 2 feet deep.  A half hour after this picture was taken this tree trunk was gone, washed downstream by the strong current.

Water rushing against the dam in Mill Pond Park

It's called a "floodplain" for a reason...

Waterfowl were enjoying the flooded shorelines;  pedestrians, not so much...

The next photograph was taken on Monday at Nelson Park, the next park downstream. This was my favorite photo of the day.  Water levels continued to rise after this picture was taken. 

An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) forages along the edge of the flooded lawn at Nelson Park
The remaining photographs were taken on Tuesday at Island Park and Pickens Field.  These parks are downstream from all the parks in the above photos.

Flooded softball field at Pickens Field

Looking across the pedestrian bridge from Pickens Field to Island Park - the Vietnam Memorial is mostly underwater

Flooding at Island Park in Mt. Pleasant - Maybe that sign should have a swimmer on it instead...

Flooding from the Chippewa River at Island Park - the line of small trees in the center for the photo shows the normal location of the riverbank.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wildflowers of 2014 - #2 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and #3 Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Continuing with my goal of photographing as many species of wildflowers as possible in 2014, yesterday I went to Mill Pond Park in Mt. Pleasant searching for a couple of Spring ephemeral wildflowers (flowers that complete their blooming cycle before the canopy trees leaf out).  I did not find what I was looking for, but did manage to find two species of trees/shrub blooming in a shrub swamp near the Chippewa River.

Wildflowers of 2014 - #2 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

The first tree that I found blooming was a Betula (Birch) species.  After much investigation, I decided that this was most likely a Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis).  There are several species native to Eastern North America that are similar, including Sweet Birch (B. lenta) and River Birch (B. nigra), but those could be eliminated based on certain characteristics.

Yellow Birch flowers and catkins

The twigs of both Yellow and Sweet Birch smell and taste like wintergreen when crushed or scraped, River Birch does not have this smell/taste.  The twigs of this tree smell like wintergreen, eliminating River Birch as an option. 

Male flower and mature catkins of Yellow Birch

Sweet Birch can be eliminated by looking at its range.  Although it is found in 21 states and the province of Ontario, Michigan is not in its native range.  The closest it is found to Michigan is in eastern Ohio.  This leaves Yellow Birch as the most likely identification for this tree.

Male flowers of Yellow Birch (Betula aleghaniensis)

Wildflowers of 2014 - #3 Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

The second tree that I found blooming was a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor).  Pussy Willow is native to 29 states and most of Canada (except Yukon territory and Nunavut).  This the first willow species to bloom in Mid-Michigan.  It is easily identified by the fuzzy immature catkins that resemble and feel like cat fur. 

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) branches and catkins

Pussy Willow - identifiable by the fuzzy immature catkins

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) catkins

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mink Tracks at Mission Creek

My last post was about a trip to Mission Creek Woodland Park and my first wildflower (and butterfly, and reptile) sighting of 2014.  I like going to Mission Creek because it seems that while I may go to seek out one thing in particular, I never know what I am going to find.

Besides Skunk Cabbage flowers, Mourning Cloak butterflies, and Common Garter Snakes, I also found a large number of footprints in the mud along Mission Creek.  Almost all of the footprints belonged to Northern Raccoons, but in one location some of the tracks were much smaller.

Instead of a Raccoon, those tracks belonged to an American Mink.

A small (probably female) mink  photographed along the Chippewa River in 2005

Mink tracks can can be identified by their pointed heal and five toes that fan out into a teardrop shape.  This can be easily seen in the track to the left of the photograph below

Mink tracks - note the five toes and teardrop shape
Mink tracks are not large - most are under an inch and a half long and an inch and a half wide.  There are two clear mink tracks (and two obscured footprints) in the photo below - mink often place their hind feet in the tracks made by their front feet, blurring the front tracks.  Also shown in the lower half of the picture below are several tracks from a Northern Raccoon.  The Swiss Army knife is 3.5 inches long and is shown for scale.

Mink (top) and Raccoon (bottom) tracks - Swiss Army knife is 3.5 inches long