Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gull (vb) - to fool, cheat, or hoax

I have a quick confession to make.  Despite being the vice-president of our local Audubon chapter and despite the fact that I do school programs about birds, I am not a "birder".

I like birds a lot.  I feed birds.  I build nest boxes.  I plant native plants for birds.  I keep track of the birds that I see as I go about my daily business.  I occasionally list sightings on ebird.  I even helped start up and organize a local migratory bird celebration. (The 2013 Bird Day Celebration is scheduled for Saturday May 11th at the Ziibiwing Center in Mt Pleasant.)

But, despite the everyone's best efforts to make me a "birder", I am not one.  I can barely identify songs sung by people much less those of birds.  I have never made a trip just to see a bird, no matter how rare.  I do not participate in Spring Migration Counts, Christmas Bird Counts, Big Sits, or Backyard Birdcounts, or Feederwatches.  I am not a "birder".

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Big and Small

We often here the phrase "Can't see the forest for the trees" to describe someone who is so focused on the details of something that they cannot see the big picture.  I don't think this is true for most people in this day and age.  Many people have an attention that is so divided they notice neither the big picture nor the details.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Leaves of three, let it be... What about leaves of five?

At some point in their life, almost everyone who has ever ventured out into the woods in Mid-Michigan has heard the phrase "Leaves of three, let it be." as a warning to avoid poison ivy.  Oddly enough this phrase causes more confusion than it solves.  I have seen people, both children and adults, avoid such plants as Wild Strawberry, Raspberry, Trillium, Box Elder, etc. because they were afraid that the plant was Poison Ivy.

The list of plants that I have see people confuse for poison ivy includes...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nature's Lumberjack

The North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of nature's greatest engineers and its greatest lumberjack.  Beavers cut down trees for building materials for dams and lodges and for food.  They do this without the help of tools, using only their teeth.  The incisors on a beaver are perfect cutting tools, kept sharp by constant use.  Their teeth grow throughout their life.  Each incisor is made of two materials that wear at different rates, the front of the tooth is covered with a hard enamel, the back of the tooth is made of softer dentin.  The softer dentin wears away faster than the enamel, creating a wedge-shaped profile on the tooth.

Beaver Skull

Close-up of incisors.  Enamel is orange, dentin is white.  Note the wedge profile.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Water, Water, Everywhere...

Water is very important to people in Michigan.  We have an abundance of it.  Sometimes we have so much that we take it for granted.

  • We are known as the Great Lakes State - parts of four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie) are within our boundaries. 
  • We have over 3000 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes - this makes Michigan the state with the longest freshwater shoreline and in the top 10 states for overall shoreline.
  • Anywhere you stand in Michigan is within 85 miles of a Great Lake
  • Our license plates once said "Water Wonderland".
  • We have over 36,000 miles of rivers and streams
  • We have over 26,000 lakes of over 1 acre, over six thousand of these are over 10 acres in size.
  • There is no place in Michigan that is more than six miles from a lake or river.
These pictures are of Great Lakes and not-so-great lakes.  They are of rivers, ponds, streams, and puddles. They are from national parks, state parks, local parks and backyards.  They show water in all seasons- Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.  They are from the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula.  They are Michigan's waters.  Drink them in.  Keep them clean. Respect them.  Preserve them.  They make our state what it is.  They influence who we are. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Native Species Profile - Gem-studded Puffball

Fungi are some of the most interesting organisms on earth.  Once lumped with plants, many species actually behave more like animals.  Fungi cannot make their own food like plants can, instead they rely on other organisms for their food.  Some species form symbiotic relationships with plants - a relationship that benefits both species - collecting water and nutrients that is shares with the plant and receiving plant starches (food) in exchange.  Other species are parasitic - invading living organisms and stealing food from them.  Many species of fungi are saprophytic.  This means that they break down dead and decaying organism for their food.

The Gem-Studded Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is a fungus that is found throughout the world and has been reported on every continent except Antarctica. In North America, it is found from the sub-arctic down to Mexico and into Central America.  It is found growing on the ground where it breaks down decaying organic matter.

A cluster of Gem-Studded Puffballs at Forest Hill Nature Area

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Native Species Profile -Red-tailed Hawk

One of the things that I like to do while driving is to count the number of hawks and other raptors that I see.  This weekend I drove down one stretch and in ten miles I counted eight hawks.  I see raptors ranging in size from the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) to the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and once a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) - this was very exciting.  The single most common raptor that I see while driving is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

It should not be a surprise that I see more Red-Tailed Hawks than any other raptor; the species is found throughout North America from central Alaska and northern Canada south into Central America and the Caribbean.  Mid-Michigan can be a hot-spot for seeing these birds in the winter.  The region has a year-round population and birds that migrate from further north often stop here for the winter.

Right now it is not unusual to see pairs of hawks perched near each other.  They are beginning courtship for the upcoming nesting season.  If you do see a pair of birds it is usually easy to identify the male and the female.  In Red-tailed Hawks, as in most raptors, the female is larger than the male.  Their size is deceptive, even though a large female Red-Tailed Hawk may have a wingspan of over 4 feet it will only weigh a little more than three pounds.

Red-tailed Hawk (March 2010)
The bird in this photo shows the typical color pattern of a Red-Tailed Hawk: brown above with a white belly and chest with streaks of brown.  The brick red tail that gives the species its name is plainly visible.  The bird's heavy hooked beak identifies it as a raptor, as do the long toes and sharp talons that it uses to catch its prey.

The Red-Tailed Hawk always seems to have a very intense glare.  Birds are unable to move their eyes, so their gaze is fixed in one direction.  Like other raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk's eyes point straight ahead giving it binocular vision (meaning it has excellent depth perception just like humans).  Adding to the intensity of its stare, the Red-Tailed Hawk's eyes are shaded by strong eyebrows - allowing them to see while flying directly toward the sun. These brows make the hawk look like it is scowling and unhappy.

When a Red-Tailed Hawk stares at you it can be a very uncomfortable feeling. It seems like the bird is sizing you up and determining whether you can be made into a meal or not.  There is no danger of this.  The Red-Tailed Hawk eats small mammal such as mice and rabbits, birds, reptiles such as snakes, and sometimes carrion.

The bird in this photo was one of a pair that was seen frequently seen hunting and perching near my office over the course of several year.  This photograph was actually taken on a spruce tree on the north border of our building's parking lot.

Basic Information

Red-tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis

Habitat:  prefers mixed habitats with open areas for hunting and woodlands for perching and nesting, found in most habitats in North America except the Arctic tundra

Size:  18 - 25.5 inches long with a 45 - 52 inch wingspan, females are typically larger than males

Diet:  small mammals, birds, reptiles, carrion

Monday, February 18, 2013

Paper and Pencil

Most of us are artists at a young age.  We love to take pencils, crayons, and markers to paper when we are young, creating "masterpieces" that we give to anyone who will take them.  Every refrigerator in a house with small children is an art gallery.  As we get older, many of us draw less and less.  We decide that we don't like to draw, that we aren't any good at it, that we don't have the time, or that there are better ways of recording information.  Some of us stop drawing altogether. In this age where every person has a camera in their pocket, or on their cellphone, or strapped to their head, what is the point of using a pencil and paper to draw anything anymore?

Mid-Michigan Habitats - Floodplain Forests

A Floodplain Forest is a type of forest that occurs in the areas of river valleys that flood during periods of high water.  Trees that live in Floodplain Forests must be able to survive having their roots periodically immersed in saturated soils or under water.  They also must be able to survive the enormous power of flood waters and the damage caused objects in the flood.  Species of plants that thrive in floodplains either grow quickly and develop vigorous root systems or have the ability to regrow if they are uprooted.

Many species of plants cannot survive in floodplains because they "drown" if their roots are under water for too long - too much water means that the roots cannot get enough oxygen and the tree dies. Many of the trees that live in floodplains cannot survive in drier climates.

The floodplain forests of Mid-Michigan are home to a diverse collection of trees and shrubs. Mid-Michigan sits right on a boundary between biomes, with Eastern Broadleaf Forest to the south and Laurentian Mixed Forest to the north. We are situated right on the northern edge of ranges for many species and on the southern edge of ranges for other species.  Therefore we have a diversity of plants in different micro-habitats throughout our river valleys.  All of the trees and shrubs below can be found in the Chippewa River floodplain near Mt. Pleasant.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Here there be dragons (and damsels)...

Hundreds of years ago, much of the world was not mapped.  Most people did not know what existed in the world beyond their horizon.  Maps often had large blank spaces, often with fanciful monsters including dragons drawn in the blank spaces. There is one real globe from the 1500s with the Latin phrase "HC SVNT DRACONES" which means "here are dragons" along the coast of Asia.

Our maps and globes no longer have large blank spaces.  The entire world has been mapped.  There are no longer spaces that are shown with dragons and other monsters, but we do not need to go to the ends of the Earth to see dragons. 

There are dragons around us...

Birds at Play (September 2008)

I know that some birds are known to play, especially crows and ravens, but you usually don't expect to find Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) on a playground. That is exactly what I found on a day in late September back in 2008.

A Wild Turkey flock going through a playground.

I know that they were just foraging for food, but I like to think that if I had not been there to disturb them they would have stopped to use one of the slides.  So what could be better than turkeys on a playground?

Turkeys and crows at the playground

Turkeys and crows on a playground, of course.  The turkeys were joined by a pair of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).  The crows at least got on the playground equipment.  They did not like me very much though and flew off when they noticed me.  The turkeys eventually moved on, foraging down the hillside and away from the playground.

This is not the only wildlife that uses this playground.  I have found Snapping Turtles nesting in the mulch around this playground each of the last two years.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Names That Make Kids Laugh - Square-stemmed Monkeyflower

Some species seem to have been named with the idea of making kids (and adults) laugh.  Sometimes the names make no sense; other times they do.  American Bladdernut - makes sense.  Squirrel Corn - makes sense if you know what to look for for.  Chicken Mushroom - doesn't really make sense.

Square-Stemmed Monkeyflower makes sense, if you have an imagination.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hey! Look at me! Look at me!

Many species of animals exhibit a property called sexual dimorphism.  This means that there is a visible difference between the male and female of the species.  Examples in the world of mammals include large antlers on male deer while females usually have none, or manes on male lions but not on females.  In many species the male is larger than the female - this includes humans.

Some birds also show this difference in size between the sexes.  Sometimes the male is larger, like in Wild Turkeys, and in other cases the female is larger than the male.  This is common in raptor species.

The real show, when it comes to sexual dimorphism is birds, is in variations in color between the male and female.  In many species there is no visible difference, but in others the male and female are so different that they do not even appear to be the same species.  First, let's look at three species where the colors are the same for male and female but there is a difference in degree of brightness.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Native Species Profile - Wild Ginger

Many plants and animals in North America are named for their resemblance to species in the Old World.  Often there is no genetic relationship between the New World species and Old World Species.

For example, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  is named because its orange breast reminded Europeans of the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) which also bears an orange breast.  Many other species were named for similar reasons.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a low-growing plant that grows throughout eastern North America.  It is named after the Ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) which is native to Asia.  The Wild Ginger of North America has a similar smell and taste to the Asian ginger and has been used as a substitute for it in cooking and brewing.  Beyond this, the two plants share no relationship.

Wild Ginger
Wild Ginger grows in moist deciduous woods, floodplains, and along the banks of streams. It spreads by rhizomes and forms large colonies that share a common root system.

 It has heart shaped leaves that rise to a height of 6 to 12 inches.  The leaves reach a size of 3 inches across by 4 inches long.  The leaves and stems are covered with fine "hairs" that make the plant feel like velvet.

A Wild Ginger flower
The plant blooms usually blooms in Mid-Michigan between late April and early June.  The flower on a Wild Ginger grows from the fork between two leaf stems.  This flower is  about 1 inch across and has three petal-like sepals that curl backward from the opening.  The flower varies in color from brown to purple and sometimes greenish-red.  Like the rest of the plant, the flower is covered with fine "hairs"

The flower often sits directly on the ground and attracts ground-dwelling beetles as its main pollinator- another plant that uses a similar color scheme and flower location to attract beetles is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). 

Basic Information

Wild Ginger
Asarum canadense

Height:  6 to 12 inches

Habitat:  moist deciduous woods, floodplains, stream banks

Flower Color:  purplish, brown, greenish-red

Bloom Time:  late April to early June

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Track in the Sand

A track in the sand on North Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
I have looked at track identification in two other posts: one on mouse tracks and another on White-Tailed Deer tracks.  Knowing some characteristics about certain types of tracks can help us identify the animal that made them.  Sometimes you get lucky and find a series of tracks and can learn things such as the animal's pattern of movement, the length of its stride, or the width between its tracks  Other times you only find a single track.  If that is the case, there are still several questions that you can ask yourself.

  • What shape is the track?
  • How many toes do I see?
  • Are the toe nails visible in the track?
  • What habitat is it in?
  • How deep is the track?
  • Is there anything else unique about the track?
  • Could this track be from a domestic animal?

Nothing but the blues...

I've been down-hearted baby,
Ever since the day we met.
I said I've been down-hearted, baby,
Ever since the day we met.
Our love is nothing but the blues,
Baby, how blue can you get?

                                    -Leonard Feather
                                                 "How Blue Can You Get"

Many species of plants and animals have a color in their name.  From Cardinal Flower, to White Oak, to Red Squirrel, to Green Dragon, etc.

For now though, nothing but the blues...

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Native Species Profile - Fox Squirrel

Mid-Michigan is home to eight species of squirrels.

Three ground squirrels call the area home: the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, and Woodchuck (Groundhog).  Yes, the Woodchuck is a squirrel and despite its size it does climb trees. The Eastern Chipmunk also climbs trees on occasion.  The Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel is strictly a ground dweller.

The ranges of the Southern Flying Squirrel and Northern Flying Squirrel overlap in Mid-Michigan.  These species do not truly fly, but rather can glide from a higher position to a lower one using flaps of skin that stretch between their front and hind legs.  The flying squirrels are nocturnal and are rarely seen.

Finally there are three species of tree squirrels that can be found in Mid-Michigan.  The smallest is the Red or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).  Next is the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which comes in several color variations.  Most black squirrels are a dark morph of the Gray Squirrel. 

The largest of the three species of tree squirrels is the Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Trout Out of Water

Lake Trout.  Brook Trout.  Rainbow Trout.  Brown Trout.

If you want to catch one of these trout you can visit one of the Great Lakes or their tributaries.  The Lake Trout and Brook Trout are both native to Michigan.  The Rainbow and Brown Trout were introduced into the Great Lakes Watershed to increase sportfishing opportunities in the late1800s.  In fact the current world record Brown Trout was caught in the Manistee River in 2009 and weighed 41.45 pounds (18.8 kgs).

These fish are not the only "trout" in Michigan.  There are two other species, but to "catch" these you have you have to turn your back to the water and head into the woods. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Photos of Winters Past

Despite the current old temperatures, Mid-Michigan seems to be lacking a winter for the second year in a row.  Here a few photos to remember what winter should look like,

Friday, February 1, 2013

Native Species Profile - Blanding's Turtle

Michigan is home to ten species of turtles.

Some species are familiar to many people like the Painted Turtle, Map Turtle, Red-Eared Slider, and Snapping Turtle.  Some are well-known but rarely seen like the Spotted Turtle and Eastern Box Turtle.  A few are less familiar, either because of their scarcity or their secretive nature including the Musk Turtle, Spiny Softshell Turtle, and my two favorites the Wood Turtle and Blanding's Turtle.

The Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii or Emys blandingii) is one of three turtle species (Blanding's, Wood, and Eastern Box) listed as a Species of Special Concern by the State of Michigan.  This means that while the Blanding's turtle has no legal protection under the Michigan Endangered Species act it is of concern because of declining populations in the state.  On a side note- the Spotted Turtle is listed as Threatened in Michigan.

As with many reptile species, the biggest threat to the Blanding's Turtle is habitat loss.