Monday, September 30, 2013

Field Trip - Mission Point lighthouse

Located at the end of M-37 on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, Mission Point Lighthouse is approximately 2 1/2 hours from Mid-Michigan.  Mission Point Lighthouse was commissioned in 1870 and remained active until 1933.  The lighthouse is a one and a half story wood frame structure with a 35 foot light tower.  The light tower rises approximately 48 feet above lake level. 

The lighthouse is sited on a 5 acre township park and is surrounded by over 130 acres of state land land.  The park is open daily until 11:00PM.  The lighthouse is open to the public between April and December. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Early Fall at Mission Creek Woodland Park

I try not to talk about anything but nature or science on this blog, but sometimes politics intrudes.

If you have spent any time looking at this blog, you have probably noticed that I posted a number of times about things that I have found at Mission Creek Woodland Park.  (Type "Mission Creek" in the search box to the right to find the other posts.)  Mission Creek Park is a 60 acre park locates at 1458 N. Harris Street on the northwest side of Mount Pleasant.  Mission Creek is my favorite local park and is the least used of Mt. Pleasant's larger parks -except in winter when the sledding hill sees a excessive amount of use.

For  better or worse this might soon change.  The Mt. Pleasant City Commission will be meeting tonight -  on their agenda is a proposal to add a fenced in dog park at Mission Creek Park.  There is a small vocal minority demanding a dog park be established in Mt Pleasant and they are quite adamant that it be established at Mission Creek Park.

The reason why Mission Creek Woodland Park is special is that it is rather secluded and unused compared to the other parks in town.  It has the feel of a rural park instead of the suburban park that it is.  It is a quiet natural area that is removed from the bustle of the city.  The addition of a dog park (and all that comes with it) will change the nature of Mission Creek Woodland Park.

But, enough ranting.

I took a trip out to Mission Creek last week to see what could be found on an early Fall Day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eat Seasonal. Eat Local.

Certain foods are best eaten fresh.  The best way to eat food that tastes the best (and is most nutritious) is to eat foods that are local and in season.  In Mid-Michigan, this means that tomatoes are best in late summer and early fall when they are ripe locally.  Strawberries are best when they are fresh picked in June.

Right now is apple season.  An apple can be stored for 16 months (but that doesn't mean they should be).  A stored apple loses its flavor, dries out, and becomes "mealy".  Fresh, local apples can be found in Mid-Michigan from late-July through late-October.  They are fresh, juicy, crisp, and perfect.

Go to the store and get some apples.

Better yet.  Go to the farmers market.

Even better, visit the orchard and pick some up.

Best of all, pick your own.  It's too late to plant apple trees now, but if you plant them in the Spring you can be enjoying your own apples within two year.

Try a variety that you are not familiar with.  There are so many apple varieties beyond Red Delicious, Macintosh, and Honey Crisp.  I like Braeburn, Matsu, Pink Lady, and Ginger Gold.

My favorite apples are from trees that I find growing along roadsides or in the woods.  Trees that were self-seeded or planted in orchards long ago and then abandoned.  The best apples that I have ever eaten were from an abandoned farm near Sleeping Bear Dunes.  My second favorite apples grow on a tree in a local park.  I don't have any idea what kind they are, but they are crisp, sweet and tart, and juicy.

Apples on a tree in an abandoned orchard in Sleeping Bear Dunes - my favorite apples of all time

Sunrise Photos - 25 September 2013

Just some pictures from this morning's sunrise.  We stopped twice on our way in to work to take them. 

Sunrise - Isabella County, MI (25 SEP 2013)

Sunrise - Isabella County, MI (25 SEP 2013)

Sunrise - Isabella County, MI (25 SEP 2013).  Photo by Shara LeValley.

Sunrise - Isabella County, MI (25 SEP 2013).  Photo by Shara LeValley.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Do I Eat? - Herbivores

The word "herbivore" means plant-eater.  It derives from the Latin words herba (plant or grass) and vorarae (devour).

The teeth of herbivorous mammals have evolved to eat a diet that is mainly composed of plants.  Often herbivores have upper and lower incisors are quite sharp and shaped like chisels.  In some mammals like rodents and rabbits these incisors meet or nearly meet and allow them to bite cleanly through plant stems. 

Muskrat (Ondotra zibethicus) skull showing the large incisors

The incisors of these animals grow throughout their lives and are worn down through constant chewing.  Only the front surface of their incisors is covered with hard enamel - causing the back of their teeth to wear faster and giving their incisors that chisel-shaped profile.

North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) skull showing chisel-shaped profile of incisors

This sharp tooth profile allows them to cut easily through non-woody plants and even woody stems.

Branch showing marks from beaver teeth

The molars of herbivorous mammals are generally flat with a chewing surface that is covered with several ridges.  These ridges allow the teeth to be used to grind leaves, stems, bark, etc. so that they may be more easily digested.  In some animals (such as rodents) the surface of the molars is quite flat and the ridges are small.

Beaver molars
Muskrat molars

Other herbivores such as White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) have molars that while generally flat have much larger ridges.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) molars

There is something interesting about the teeth of White-tailed Deer.  White-tailed Deer (and all other deer) do not have top incisors.  This means that they are unable to bite directly through plants like those species that have opposing incisors.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) skull - note the lack of upper incisors

Instead their bottom incisors come in contact with a rough pad on their upper jaw, enabling them to tightly grab onto plants which they then tear or twist off.  Branches that are browsed by White-tailed Deer are often cut on one side (by the lower incisors) and roughly torn on the other rather than being neatly cut like plants chewed by rodents.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) skull - Lower incisors meet up with a rough pad on the upper jaw.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Happy Fall!

Yesterday at 4:44 PM EST, Summer ended and Fall officially began.  The first day of Fall is also known as the Autumnal (Fall) Equinox.  The word Equinox means "equal night" and comes from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).  On this date the sun is striking directly on the equator, resulting in approximately equal amounts of daylight and darkness around the globe.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Whose tracks are these? I think I know.

Back in January and February I wrote three posts about identifying the tracks of a mouse, deer, and coyote.  In each of those posts I talked about how to identify the track of a mammal based on the size, shape, location, arrangement, etc. Part of that initial post on track identification is included below.

Mammals in Michigan move on the ground in one of four ways: walking, waddling, hopping, or bounding.

Walkers typically have long legs and narrow bodies.  Their footprints are usually round or oval shaped and always have an even number of toes. Their tracks usually form a fairly straight line with front and rear prints staggered from one side to the other.   Examples of walkers include deer, foxes, bobcats, etc.

Waddlers usually have wide bodies and shorter legs.  Their feet are generally wide at the heal and get wider toward the toes forming a trapezoid shape.  Their tracks are spread wider apart than those of walkers and would straddle a straight line rather than being on it.  Like a walker, waddlers' footprints are also staggered. Some examples of waddlers include black bear, opossum, and raccoon.

Hoppers move by pushing off with their long springy hind feet.  When they are moving fast all four feet are in the air at the same time.  They land front feet first and their back feet will actually land in front of the position of their front feet.  When following their tracks their smaller front prints will be behind their paired larger rear footprints.  Their feet are generally shaped like long skinny triangles. Some examples of hoppers include rabbits, squirrels, and mice.

The mammals in Mid-Michigan that bound are all members of the weasel family.  This includes mink, otter, marten, and fisher.  These mammals all have long skinny bodies and very short legs.  Their footprints are oval or teardrop shaped and might be mistaken for a mammal that walks except for the number of toes.  Bounders have 5 toes on both their front and hind feet.  Bounding is similar to hopping in a way. Their footprints are also paired, but the front prints are often obscured by the rear feet which will land in the same location as the front prints.

This week I am doing thirteen classroom programs over five days.  Nine of those programs are about Michigan Mammals.  One of the activities included in those programs is identifying an unknown track.  

Here is an unknown track.  Can you guess who made it?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Milkweed Beetles

Almost everyone knows these facts about the relationship between Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and plants in the Milkweed (Asclepias) family:

  • Monarch Butterfly caterpillars only eat Milkweeds.  
  • Milkweed plants produce toxic chemicals and that the Monarch caterpillars can ingest those chemical without harm.  
  • The caterpillar stores those chemicals in its body, becoming toxic (and bad tasting).
  • These chemicals stay in the Monarch throughout its life cycle.
  • The orange and black coloring of the adult Monarch is a warning to predators that the Monarch is toxic and tastes bad.  This use of warning colors is known as aposematic coloration.
The Monarch is not the only insect that eats Milkweed plants.  In Mid-Michigan there are two species of beetles that also have Milkweeds as their host plants. (There are also two species of Milkweed Bugs.) The Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), also known as the Milkweed Borer, and the Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) are both found on milkweeds throughout Mid-Michigan. 

Like the the Monarch Butterfly they can consume Milkweeds without suffering any ill effects and store those chemicals in their bodies - using them as a chemical defense against predators.  Also like the Monarch Butterfly both beetle species display aposematic coloration to advertise their chemical defenses. Both species are orange(or red) and black. 

Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on Common Milkweed

Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) on Common Milkweed

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Native Species Profile - Eastern Chipmunk

Mid-Michigan is home to eight species of squirrels. 

Three species of tree squirrels call the area home.  The smallest of the tree squirrels is the Red or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).  Next largest is the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which comes in several color variants, including black.  The largest of the tree squirrels is the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger).

The ranges of the Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans) and Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) 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 ground squirrels can be found in the region.  The Thirteeen-line Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus tridecaemlineatus), Woodchuck (Marmota monax), and the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus).  Of these three, the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels is strictly a ground-dweller, while both the Woodchuck and Eastern Chipmunk both can and do climb trees.

The Eastern Chipmunk is the smallest of these three species with a body length measuring six to eight inches and a tail of three to four inches.  It weighs between 2.8 and 5.3 ounces. 

The Eastern Chipmunk is an overall reddish-brown color on its upper parts.  Its upper back is lined with five dark brown stripes alternating with light brown stripes that run from the shoulders to the lower back where they fade out.  The tail typically is covered with the same reddish-brown fur as the body with longer black-tipped guard hairs giving it grayish appearance.

The Eastern Chipmunk is a rodent and like most rodents it eats an omnivorous diet.  Common food items include seeds, fruit, nuts, leaf and flower buds, insects, bird eggs and mushrooms.  It will also consume baby birds, mice, frogs and small snakes on occasion.  It also stores large quantities of food in its underground burrow.  It transports food to its burrow in expandable cheek pouches.  This omnivorous diet and the tendency to store foods allows the Chipmunk to make use of a number of habitats.  The Eastern Chipmunk is commonly found in hardwood and coniferous forests, along forest edges, and in suburban areas.

The burrows of Eastern Chipmunks can be quite extensive and often feature several hidden entrances, long tunnels, and chambers for sleeping, food storage, and waste disposal.  The Chipmunk retreats to these burrows when threatened by predators, of which it has many.  The Eastern Chipmunk also enters this burrow to survive the winter months, relying on food stored in its larder.  While not a true hibernator like the Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel and Woodchuck, the Eastern Chipmunk will enter periods of torpor throughout the winter - reducing its activity levels and bodily functions to conserve energy.  It will occasionally venture out of its burrow on warm winter days or if its food supplies begin to run low.

Basic Information

Eastern Chipmunk 
Tamias striatus

Size:  6-8” long w/ 3-4” tail

Weight:  2.8-5.3 ounces

Habitat:  forests, forest edges, suburban areas

Eats:  seeds, fruit, nuts, insects, fungi, buds, flowers, frogs, baby birds, bird eggs, small snakes

Is Eaten By:  raven, great blue heron, hawks, owls, weasels, raccoon, red fox, gray fox, bobcat, lynx, coyote, house cat, dog

Monday, September 16, 2013

Feeling Like Fall

To many people Fall begins on the Tuesday after Labor Day.  Fall officially begins in six days, on September 22 at 4:44PM (Eastern Standard Time).  To me, Fall begins the night we have frost on the ground.  I woke up last Friday (September 13th) with frost on the rooftops and parked vehicles - none on the ground.  The forecast is for more possible frost tonight.  It is starting to look (and feel) a lot like Fall.  In honor of the changing seasons I thought I would share some Fall photographs from the last few years.

Friday, September 13, 2013

World's Largest Rotating Globe

On our trip to Maine, my wife (Shara) and I visited the world's largest revolving/rotating globe.  Known as Eartha, this globe measures over 41 feet in diameter and is housed at the headquarters of DeLorme (a manufacturer of maps, atlases, global positioning systems, and mapping software) in Freeport, Maine.  The globe is housed in the company's three story lobby.My wife and I (mainly my wife) have a collection of globes so this was one of many highlights of the trip for her.  

All photos by Shara LeValley.

The World's Largest Globe - as seen from the 3rd floor balcony

The World's Largest Globe - add a random tourist for scale

North America coming into view

Home is right there in the middle of the "mitten"

The World's Largest Globe - most of North America

The World's Largest Globe in the three story glass lobby at DeLorme headquarters in Freeport, Maine

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Native Species Profile - White Lettuce

When most people think of woodland wildflowers they think of the spring ephemerals such as trilliums, trout lilies, and hepaticas.  Fall is rarely thought of as a season to find woodland wildflowers, but they can be found in certain habitats.  Probably the best place to search for fall woodland wildflowers is in floodplain forest, along wooded streams, the edges of swamps, and other habitats with moist soil.  Many of these species grow in open woodlands, where the forest floor does receive partial sun throughout the day.  Unlike spring wildflowers which tend to be low, rarely reaching over a foot in height, fall woodland wildflower species are often tall and showy.

Among the taller fall wildflowers is White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba).  White Lettuce commonly grows between 2 and 5 foot tall.  It grows in wet woodlands throughout northeastern North America. It is found as far west as the Dakotas and Saskatchewan and as far south as northwest Arkansas and western North Carolina.  Overall it is found in twenty-six states.  A separate species, Tall White Lettuce (Prenanthes altissima) is wider ranging, growing throughout the Northeast and as far south as the Gulf States.

White Lettuce is easy to identify from its leaves alone.  While the flower does not bloom in Mid-Michigan until August or September, the leaves can be found as early as mid-May.  The leaves grow alternately on the stem and can grow to 8 inches long and 6 inches wide.  Each leaf is deeply lobed with 3-5 lobes per leaf.  The largest leaves can be found closer to the bottom of the plant.  Leaves near the top of the stem become smaller and simpler and are often not lobed.

White Lettuce leaves - late May

White Lettuce leaves - late May

The plant branches near the top.  Each branch of the stem will produces several flowers clustered near the end of the branch.  The flowers of White Lettuce are bell shaped and drooping, hanging below the branching stems.  Each flower is approximately 3/4 of an inch long and 1/2 an inch wide.  Flowers are white with a purple tint.  The petals spread widely when the flower is in bloom allowing access to bumblebees. In Mid-Michigan the plant blooms from August through September.  Seeds produced by the plant resemble small dandelion seeds complete with a brownish-white parachute.  These seeds are readily spread by the wind.

White Lettuce flowers - not the branching stems, small leaves, and drooping blossoms

White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba) flowers

Close-up view of White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba) flowers

Another close-up of the White Lettuce flowers - not the widely spreading petals

White Lettuce is also known as White Rattlesnake-root, indicating that it may have been used in the past as a folk cure for snakebite. 

Sources seem to be mixed on the proper habitat for this plant.  Some authors list Wild Lettuce as a species of dry habitats including prairies, sand dunes, and dry open conifer and broadleaf forests.  Other authors list the plant growing in wet woodlands only.  The USDA lists the plant as being a Facultative Upland species - which is a fancy way of saying that it usually grows in dry habitats, but is sometimes found in wetlands.  I have typically found it growing only in moist woodlands and along the edges of swamps.

Basic Information

White Lettuce 
(White Rattlesnake-root) 
Prenanthes alba

Height:  2-5’ tall

Habitat:  wet woodlands

Flower Color:  white

Bloom Time:  August- September

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

More of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

I thought today that I would post a few more images that I have taken at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore over the past six years.  These photos were taken at different locations (including Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, North Manitou Island, and the Port Oneida Rural Historical District) at times of the year ranging from Spring to Fall.  Enjoy.