Monday, March 31, 2014

Field Trip - "Butterflies in Bloom" at Dow Gardens

Yesterday, I went to the annual Butterflies in Bloom exhibit in the conservatory at Dow Gardens in Midland.  This exhibit features nearly 100 species of butterflies and moths from around the world.  The conservatory is open year-round, but the butterflies will only be there until April 20th.  The exhibit is open daily from 10:00AM to 4:00PM.

This exhibit is a great opportunity to get close to many species of butterflies.  Many of the species are very approachable and will allow you to gently handle them.  This is a great place to take kids.  Just a warning, the exhibit can get very busy crowded at times.

Other places in Michigan where you can see butterflies up close include: the Butterfly Garden at the Detroit Zoo, the Mackinac Island Butterfly House, the Indoor 4-H Children's Garden at Michigan State University (through April 30th), and Brenda's Butterfly Habitat in Westland.

Here are some of my photographs of the butterflies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Just wait a few minutes...

Mark Twain has famously been quoted as saying "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes." 

This phrase has been adapted to just about every region of the country. 

Will Rogers adapted it for his home state; "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it'll change."

The phrase applies to the weather in Mid-Michigan too.  Especially in the Spring

Yesterday, snow.

Last night, rain.

Today, fog.

Two small trees in the fog

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Plant Trees - A Vintage Poster

Spring is the right time of year to plant a tree (or many trees).

The Isabella Conservation District is accepting Spring tree orders until April 7th.
The order form can be found here.

If you don't live near Isabella County check to see if your local conservation district is having a sale.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Native Species Profile - Cow Parsnip

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of the mostly bare seed-head of a Cow Parsnip plant.

Cow Parsnip seed head in Winter - the seeds are consumed by birds

Even in Winter, Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) stands out from its surroundings.  Cow Parsnip is a large plant reaching a height of 4 to 9 feet.  It lives up to its scientific name Heracleum maximumHeracleum comes from the Greek word her├íkleion and refers to the Greek mythological hero Heracles (Hercules); maximum comes from the Latin word magnum which mean "great".  Like the Greek hero, Cow Parsnip dominates its surroundings.

A Cow Parsnip plant in late Summer

Cow Parsnip can be found in moist, low areas across most of North America.  It grows in ditches and streams, along shorelines and riverbanks, and in swamps and other wetlands.  It grows equally well in sun and shade.  It is found in all states except Hawaii and eight states in the Deep South, and in all Canadian provinces and territories with the exception of Nunavut.

Like its namesake garden vegetable, Cow Parsnip is a member of the Carrot Family or Apiaceae.  Like other members of this family it has flat topped flowers.  This type of flower head is called an umbel - a group of small flowers growing in a cluster on short stalks that resemble the ribs of an umbrella.  The flowers are white and bloom between June and August.  The flowers attract many species of butterflies and native bees.

Cow Parsnip - note the umbelliferous flower head

The plant has large compound leaves with three leaflets.  The middle leaflet is further divided into three lobes.  The leaf stalks are swollen and resemble celery stalks - the plant is sometimes known as Indian Celery.  The leaves are attached alternately to the stem and the base of the leaf stalk clasps part way around the stem.  The leaves are soft and were eaten as a cooked green by many Native American tribes.  The leaf stalks and the large hollow stems are covered with fine needle-like hairs.  A word of caution: these needles and the plants sap contain a chemical known as a furocoumarins (furanocoumarins).  This sap can cause a photo-toxic reaction - the sap will react with sunlight causing a chemical burn/rash that can be severe in some people.

Cow Parsnip - note the compound leaf and swollen leaf stalk
Fortunately,  because of its size it is easy to avoid accidental contact with Cow Parsnip.  It often towers over any surrounding vegetation.  Nor can it be easily confused with any other native plants.  At some stages of growth it does resemble other native Apiaceae species, but a mature Cow Parsnip towers over these other plants.  It does resemble other Heracleum species including Heracleum mantegazzianum.  Also known as Giant Hogweed, H. mantegazzianum has been introduced to some 
areas of North America and is considered a noxious weed.  The sap from Giant Hogweed causes an even more severe photo-toxic reaction than Cow Parsnip.

Cow Parsnip growing in a Northern Hardwood-Conifer Swamp

Basic Information

Cow Parsnip 
Heracleum maximum (Heracleum lanatum)

Height:  4-9’ tall

Habitat:  low, moist areas;  roadsides, shorelines, along banks

Flower Color:  white to purplish

Bloom Time:  June – August

Monday, March 24, 2014

Milkweed , Snow, Ice, and Grass

Last week out in the field behind the Conservation District office to take a few photographs and to collect milkweed seeds.  In parts of the field the snow was melting rapidly, leaving patches of bare grass.  I really liked the pattern that the snow formed as it melted.  In some areas the snow was completely gone; in other spaces a thin lens of ice remained; and in some spaces several inches of snow remained.  I also liked the contrast of the bare stalks and (mostly) empty seedpods against the background of snow and grass.

Common Milkweed, snow, ice, and grass

Some milkweed pods still had seeds hanging on

I like the shadows from the milkweeds falling over the snow and grass

Melting snow and dried grass

An ice lens is all that remains over the grass in many places

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Vernal Equinox

Today at 12:57 PM EST, Winter officially ends and Spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere.  The day that this change occurs is known as the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.  The word equinox comes from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).  On the Equinox the sun strikes directly on the Equator resulting in approximately equal periods of day and night across the globe.

The Earth rotates around its axis approximately once every 24 hours.  However this axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees from the vertical.  The points on the globe that the axis revolves around are referred to as the North and South Poles.  The axis is always pointed toward the same location in the sky.  The North Pole points toward the "North Star" - Polaris.

At any given time, fifty percent of the earth is in sunlight (Day) and the other fifty percent is in darkness (Night).  However, because the Earth is tilted on its axis sunlight does not always strike the Earth at the same angle.  This means during different seasons different parts of the Earth will receive varying amounts of sunlight and darkness.

As the earth revolves around the sun, sometimes the North Pole is closer to the sun, sometimes the South Pole is closer to the sun.  When the North Pole is at its closest, the sun lights a larger portion of the Northern Hemisphere than it does the Southern Hemisphere.  When this happens, we experience Summer in Mid-Michigan and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Winter.  When the North Pole is at its furthest from the sun, we experience Winter and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Summer.  During our Northern Winter, the sun is striking a a larger portion of the Southern Hemisphere than it is the Northern Hemisphere.

Today the North Pole and South Pole are both at the same distance from the sun.  Direct sunlight is falling directly on the Equator, lighting the Northern and Southern Hemispheres equally.  Here in Mid-Michigan (and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere), we are passing into Spring and the Southern Hemisphere is passing into Fall.

My attempt at a diagram showing how the sun lights different parts of the globe on different days

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Late Winter Walk - Chipp-A-Waters Park (19 MAR 2014)

Last.  Day.  Of.  Winter.

Let that sink in a little.

Spring will finally be here tomorrow.  This Winter has seemed especially long and hard.  There has been snow on the ground in Mid-Michigan since the first of December.  Many communities in the Great Lakes had both their coldest and snowiest winters on record.  Winter is my favorite season, but I am ready for a change.

I had time this morning for one last Winter walk in the woods before the seasons changed over.

I decided to go to Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant.  I have a great love of Mt. Pleasant's parks and especially its trail system.  For a decade (2002 to 2012), I worked as a seasonal maintenance worker in the City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation Department.  For much of that time, my primary job was taking care of the trail system that runs along the Chippewa River.  Many of my older photos were taken while I was working in the parks.

Here is some of what I found today.

The view upstream from the canoe landing at Chipp-A-Waters Park

Recent evidence of beavers in the Chippewa River

Raindrops on a Boxelder branch

The Access Recreation Trail winds through the woods at Chipp-A-Waters Park

At one point while walking through the woods, I could hear a woodpecker hammering away on a tree.  After walking a little further, I was able to locate a Pileated Woodpecker high up in a tree.  This is how most people see them if at all.  They can be very difficult to photograph in the wild - which makes my experience photographing one last March all the more remarkable.

Pileated Woodpecker - look in the very center of the picture

Looking out through the woods

American Beech trees often retain their leaves throughout the winter

The boardwalk out to the oxbow pond

Another view of American Beech trunks

Green Ash trees killed by Emerald Ash Borer are starting to topple in high winds

Ash Borer galleries under the bark

Fungus often invades these galleries, speeding the tree's decay

D-shaped exit holes from emerging Emerald Ash Borer adults

Red Oak leaves in the snow

Fertile fronds of Cinnamon Fern poking up through the snow

Besides the Pileated Woodpecker, I did see several other species of wildlife during my walk including a Great Blue Heron, Mallard ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, a Brown Creeper, a Red Squirrel, an Eastern Chipmunk (first of the year), and several Fox Squirrels.  The only animal that I was able to get a good picture of was one of the Fox Squirrels.

A Fox Squirrel


Monday, March 17, 2014

Plant Milkweed - Free Seeds

Anyone that is interested in nature has probably heard of the severe decline in Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) populations. 

Researchers measure the population by calculating the area that the overwintering population occupies.  This year that number is down to 0.67 hectares - this equal to an area of approximately 268.5 feet by 268.5 feet.  This is roughly equal to the size of 1 1/4 American Football fields.  This is down from an overwintering population that covered 1.19 hectares last Winter (2012-13). 

Area occupied by overwintering Monarch Butterflies -

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the decline of the Monarch Butterfly including drought, pesticide use, changing farming practices, etc.  While there may not be anything that you can do about those bigger issues, there is one thing that you can do to help Monarch Butterfly populations - provide habitat for them in your yard.  The number one thing that you can do for Monarchs is to plant milkweed plants in your garden.  Milkweeds are the only larval host plant of Monarchs; their larva cannot eat any other food.  While there are many varieties of milkweed, the one that Monarchs rely upon across their range is the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

If you are interested in planting Milkweed in your garden, I have nine packs of Common Milkweed seeds (50 seeds in each pack) that I am willing to give away to anyone who lives within the native range of plant.  To get these seed, just send me an email.  Seeds will be sent out to the first nine people who email. 

Distribution Map
Range map of Common Milkweed

Native Species Profile - Common Garter Snake

Today (March 17th) is Saint Patrick's Day.  According to legend, Saint Patrick is responsible for the lack of snakes in Ireland.  He was in the middle of a 40 day fast when he was attacked by snakes.  Saint Patrick arose from his fast and drove all the snakes into the ocean, banishing them from Ireland.  To this day, Ireland has not snakes.

In reality, there were no snakes in Ireland for Patrick to chase into the ocean.  Ireland was covered with glaciers during more than one Ice Age.  During the most recent glacial maximum, three quarters of the island was covered with ice and the remainder was too cold for snakes to survive.  Because Ireland is not connected to the remainder of Europe, no snakes have been able to make the migration to the island in the 11,000 years since the glaciers receded.

Mid-Michigan was also covered with glaciers during this last Ice Age and any snake species had to retreat southward or perish.  Fortunately, Michigan is not an island and the snakes have been able to return in the ensuing 11,000 years.

The most common snake in Mid-Michigan is the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

A small Common Garter Snake in a Mid-Michigan woodland

Also known as the Eastern Garter Snake, the Common Garter Snake is found throughout North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  A highly adaptable species, the Common Garter Snake is found in most habitat types except dessert, high alpine, and tundra.  In Michigan its inhabits woodlands, wetlands, prairies, farmlands, and suburbs.  Because it is an adaptable species, it is even able to survive in urban areas.

Sometimes, Garter Snakes are mistakenly called "garden snakes".  Garter Snakes are named after  parallel yellow bands that run the entire length of their body.  Besides the Common Garter Snake there are two other species of garter snake found in Michigan.  It is fairly easy to distinguish between the three species.  The Northern Ribbon Snake (T. sauritus) looks more slender and whip-like than the the Common Garter Snake.  Ribbon Snakes also have much longer tails than Common Garter Snakes.  Butler's Garter Snake (T. butleri) is generally smaller, with a thick neck and a small head.

Common Garter Snake in a marsh on North Manitou Island

Common Garter Snakes are highly variable in color.  Color morphs range from brown to green to yellow.  Because of this range of color they can be somewhat confusing to identify at times.  The Common Garter Snake is a medium sized snake, measuring from 16 to 40 inches as an adult. Females are generally larger than males.

Common Garter Snakes are a medium sized snake reaching 16 to 40 inches in length.

One of the reasons that Common Garter Snakes have been so successful is their ability to adapt to a variety of food sources.  Common Garter Snakes are predators.  Smaller individuals prey upon invertebrates such as slugs, worms, and large insects - I have seen one eating a large dragonfly.  Larger individuals eat small vertebrates such as minnows, rodents, birds, and amphibians.  They seem to be especially fond of frogs.  Several times I have found Common Garter Snakes in the process of eating frogs - like the pictures below of one eating a Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor).  Garter Snakes (like all other snakes) swallow their food whole.  While they may use their body to hold down a prey animal they are not constrictors - they do not coil around their prey to suffocate it.  Instead they grasp their prey with their mouths and work their jaws around until they are able to swallow the prey animal head-first.  Garter Snakes do produce a mild venom that might also help them subdue their prey.

Common Garter Snake preying on a Gray Treefrog

Common Garter Snake preying on a Gray Treefrog - swallowed up to the shoulders

Common Garter Snake preying on a Gray Treefrog - swallowed past the shoulders
Common Garter Snakes are solitary species.  Although you may find large numbers of individual snakes in a small area if there is abundant food, each snake acts independently to survive.  There are two times of the year when the snakes may congregate in numbers.  In the fall Common Garter Snakes (and other species of snakes) gather in groups at hibernaculums where the they will hibernate in groups. 

In the Spring, smaller groups are often found together in mating clusters.  If you see a writhing cluster of snakes in the Spring look at it closely.  One of the snakes in the group will be larger - this is a female.  All of the other snakes in the cluster will be smaller males competing for the opportunity to mate.

A mating cluster of Common Garter Snakes

A mating cluster of Common Garter Snakes consisting of one large female and three smaller males.

Common Garter Snakes are generally docile and rarely bite when handled.  I have noticed that small individual snakes tend to be more aggressive than large individuals.  However, as with any wild animal, care should be taken if you choose to handle them.  I mentioned that Garter Snake bites do contain a small amount of mild venom.  Most people, if bitten, will react to a bite with only minor irritation.  However, some people are allergic to this venom and may experience more severe reactions. 

Basic Information

Common Garter Snake 
Thamnophis sirtalis

Size:  16-40” long 

Habitat:  almost all habitats, wetlands, fields, prairies, forests, agricultural lands, suburban areas, etc.

Eats:  amphibians, worms, minnows, slugs, small animals