Thursday, January 31, 2013

Names That Make Kids Laugh - Bladdernut

As I said in the post about the Chicken Mushroom, there are certain names of organism that are guaranteed to make kids (and even some adults) break out into laughter.  One the all time champions for this is the American Bladdernut tree.

In my elementary school program about Michigan trees, one of the activities is to look at leaf samples and categorize them as needle-leafs or broad-leafs.  I can tell almost instantly when a group of students has discovered the Bladdernut.

Either one member of the group will yell out the word "Bladdernut!" and they all start giggling, or the students will begin whispering and pointing and just have to show the word to members of another group. 

So what did the poor Bladdernut do to deserve this reaction?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Don't Touch Me!

There are two related species of native wildflowers known as Touch-me-nots:  the Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) and the Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida).  For what reason would a plant be called a touch-me-not?  If you ask a group of elementary students about the name, you will probably get a list similar to this:

  • The plant is poisonous to people.
  • The plant is poisonous to animals.
  • The plant has thorns.
  • The plant can cause an allergic reaction.
  • The plant is dangerous in some other way.
  • The plant is poisonous to other plants.
  • The plant will die if touched.
So which of these is the true reason behind the name?  Or is it a different reason entirely?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Names That Make Kids Laugh - Chicken Mushroom

There are some names of native species that always make kids laugh:  Tufted Titmouse, Square-stemmed Monkeyflower, Squirrel Corn, the always popular Bladdernut, etc.

Another is one of the most striking fungi found in Mid-Michigan: the Chicken Mushroom.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Native Species Profile - Lizard Tail

Not many wildflowers have names that have an obvious origin to the modern person.  Mad Dog Skullcap?  Squirrel Corn?  Motherwort?  Dogbane?

Sometimes though the name of a plant is delightfully simple and obvious.  One of my favorite plants is the Lizard Tail (Saururus cernuus).

Lizard Tail

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weather - Mackerel Skies

"Mackerel scales and mare's tails
Make lofty ships carry low sails"

This is an old bit of weather folklore that refers to an unsettled appearance of the sky before incoming bad weather.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The voices of trees

"I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."
                              -Dr. Seuss (1971)

While it may be true that trees have no tongues, many trees do seem to have stories to tell. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Native Species Profile - Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwings in a buckthorn tree
 Many birds that are found in Mid-Michigan can be very difficult to identify for the average person.  They might only pass through the area for a limited time, so they are unfamiliar.  They may have plumage that varies during different parts of the year.  There many be a difference between males and females, or young birds and adults.  They may just fall into that category of "little brown birds".  Fortunately, some birds are easy to identify.  One of those species is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Adaptations - Color variability

A simple definition of the word adaptation is a physical trait or behavior that helps a living organism survive in its habitat.

One physical trait that many species show is a variability in the coloration of individuals.  This variability may enable individual in a species to blend in better with their specific habitat.  If habitat changes over time, individuals with a certain coloration may have a competitive advantage over individuals of another color.

One example of color variation that occurs in Mid-Michigan is among frogs.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Drawing Flies

On the scale of good to bad smells, rotting meat is usually listed on the bad end of the scale.  Most people are disgusted and repulsed by the smell, but many insects find the smell irresistible.  Many species of flies especially love the smells.  Some species of plants and fungi have developed adaptations that take advantage of flies' attraction to this smell.  They use the flies that are drawn to the odor to help them reproduce.  In Mid-Michigan three species that have adapted in this way are the Carrion Flower, Skunk Cabbage, and Bearded Stinkhorn.

You can follow your nose to find these plants.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Two Years Ago This Week - Red Fox

A Golden Eagle flying along the highway.  Five Pileated Woodpeckers in one tree.  A mink running down the center line of US 127.  A family of seven mink less than ten feet away.  These are just a few of the animal encounters that I have not photographed.

It always seems that the more amazing something is that I see, the less likely I am to have my camera with me.  Red Foxes have always been one of those animals that I have seen only when I had no camera.  Once, while wandering through a marsh I met a fox from a distance of about 7 or 8 feet.  It stared at me for a few second before disappearing away.  Of course,  not a camera in sight.

A running Red Fox (January 14th, 2011)

Two years ago, this week, I took my one and only photograph of a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes).  While I had seen fox many times, it had always been without a camera in my hand.  On January 14th, 2011 I finally saw one that I could photograph.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Keeping Warm - Adaptive Behavior

As I discussed in the post about the Black-capped Chickadee birds have many strategies to help them survive cold winter conditions from eating calorie-rich foods, to shivering, to puffing up their feathers, to seeking shelter.  Some birds find creative ways to stay warm.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Native Species Profile - Muskrat

Lodges at Forest Hill Nature Area

Did you ever see something out in a pond that looks like a tiny beaver lodge and wonder "What animal made that?"

A lodge up close

Beaver lodges are larger and made of branches.  This lodge is small (less than 3 foot tall) and made of cattails and other soft plants.  So if a beaver didn't make this, what did?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Comments now turned on

It was brought to my attention that commenting required a log-in.  That has been corrected and anyone may comment.

More Tracks in the Snow

A track and fur in the snow

Yesterday I looked at the tracks that a mouse left as it hopped through the snow.  Today's tracks are much different. There are several footprints from the one animal in this picture.  Near the top edge of the picture there is one track partially filled in with snow.  Nearly straight down from this there is one clear track with two toes visible - this track is on top of another track and mostly covers it.  At the bottom of the picture, directly below the clump of fur is another faint track.

So what animal made these tracks?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tracks in the snow

What animal made these tracks?

Sometimes we do not need to see an animal to learn something about it.  Animals often leave signs of their activities: nests and bedding sites, evidence of feeding, scat, hair or feathers, and especially tracks.

If we look at an animal's tracks we can learn many things about it.
  • How large is it?
  • Is it heavy or light?
  • Was it moving fast or slow?
  • How was it moving?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Native Species Profile - Bloodroot

Bloodroot flower surrounded by its leaf

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a native perennial wildflower that in grows in deciduous forests throughout the eastern United States and Canada.  It's flowers have 8 to 10 white petals surrounding a yellow pistil and stamen topped with orange pollen.  It is pollinated by bees and other flying insects.

In Mid-Michigan, it is one of the earliest blooming wildflowers, often blooming as early as March and sometimes continuing until May.  Individual plants bloom only for a few days.  Like many spring wildflowers it blooms, produces seeds, and dies back for the year before most trees have fully leafed out.

Like many other woodland wildflowers, its seeds are spread by ants.  It also spreads by sending up new stems from undergound rhizomes forming dense colonies over time.

The Bloodroot is named after the red-orange sap that  leaks when a stem or root is broken or cut. This sap is toxic, but was traditionally used by many Native American tribes as a medicine for respiratory illnesses.

It can be found in many deciduous woods throughout Mid-Michigan.

A Bloodroot Colony

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chickadees in Winter

Black Capped Chickadee
Find four pennies and hold them in the palm of your hand.  They weigh about 10 grams (equal to 0.35 ounces or 0.022 pounds).  That is how much an average Black-capped Chickadee weighs. From the tip of its tail to its beak measures between 4.5 and 6 inches.  It has a wingspan from 6 to 8.5 inches. 

Unlike many other familiar birds, the Black-Capped Chickadee is a year round resident of Mid-Michigan.  How does a small bird like this survive winter in Michigan?

Monday, January 7, 2013

An Introduction

Frosty Maple Leaf
Welcome to the blog for the Isabella Conservation District Environmental Education Program.  My name is Michael LeValley.  I am the Education Coordinator for the Isabella Conservation District.  I was hired in 2009 to get the District's Environmental Education Program off the ground.  This program runs in schools throughout Isabella County, MI and focuses on teaching Life and Earth Science concepts to students in Grades 3 - 6.  We offer classroom and field programs on a variety of environmental and conservation related topics with a focus on local habitats.  I did our first classroom program in December 2009.  Since that time,  I have given nearly 500 school programs to over ten thousand students in Mid-Michigan.  I also from time to time do programs for the local library system and other groups. 

During school programs, students ask me lots of questions that sometimes I do not have time to answer during the course of the program or to which I don't have a ready answer.  I hope to use this blog to answer some of those questions and also to focus on local nature including plants, animals, rocks & minerals, weather, etc. throughout the years.  I also hope to highlight upcoming science and nature events as they occur in the community and any interesting stories/links that I come across. Any photos on this blog are mine unless otherwise noted and any thoughts are my own.  My hope is to be able to post something daily throughout the school year with the hope that teachers and students will be able to use this in the classroom.

Mid-Michigan may not seem to be a hotbed of nature and science.  We do not have sweeping vistas and great animal migrations, but if you look closely what you find might amaze you.  It is amazing what is right outside the door waiting to be found.  Thank you for your interest.