Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nature's Bounty

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States.  It is a time to give thanks and be grateful for the bounty that has been bestowed upon us by nature and the fruits of our honest labor.  I thought I would share just a couple pictures that depict some of nature's available bounty that may be found this time of year in Mid-Michigan.  These images were taken last Friday (21 NOV 2014) in the field behind our office.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Raptors and Niches

One of the programs that I do for 4th and 6th grade student is on animal adaptations.  One of the concepts that is discussed during this presentation is that animal adapt and evolve to fill an ecological niche.  The concept of an ecological niche is essentially that a species has a certain position or role in its natural community.  One way that I have been demonstrating this concept is with the skulls of a number of species of raptors (birds of prey) - these skulls are all replicas.

I like using the raptor skulls to explain the concept of a niche because the students can see the obvious similarities between the species - large hooked beak,  large forward facing eyes, and presence a prominet supraorbital ridge (brow bone) in most species.  The students can also easily notice the differences between species, especially size.  This size difference makes it easy to explain that each raptor species occupies a specific role or niche in the environment.

Here are the nine replica raptor skulls that I use.

The skulls in this photo include:  (front row) American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey; (middle row) Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle; (back row) Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl.

It is easy to see the similarities among these birds.  It is also easy to see the difference in size among these species - the grid-lines on the paper background are at one inch intervals.

While these birds all exhibit similar characteristics, the skulls in the above photo represents three different orders and five different families.  The three different orders evolved separately toward a common form and function - this is known as convergent evolution.  Within each order the birds have evolved to fill different niches; they vary in size, shape, and in the species of prey that they prefer.  During this process they have become separate species - this process is known as divergent evolution.

Right now, I don't want to discuss the specific ecological niche of each species, but merely focus on the size difference between the species.  This size difference clearly indicates that each species fills a different place in the environment.

American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon

The first two species are both in the Order Falconiformes and the Family Falconidae - the American Kestral (Falco sparverius) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).


The third species is in the Order Accipiteriformes and the Family Pandionidae - the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).  The Osprey is the only species in its Family.

Red-tailed Hawk

Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle

The three species in the middle row are all in the Order Accipiteriformes and the Family Accipitridae -  the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Barn Owl

Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl

The three owls are all in the Order Strigiformes, but represent two different families.  The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is in the Family Tytonidae.  The Barred Owl (Strix varia) and Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) are both in the Family Strigidae.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Last winter I wrote a post about how small mammals use the subnivean zone for shelter and transportation.  Yesterday I went out into the same field behind the office and found several collapsed subnivean tunnels in the freshly fallen snow.  The longest of these tunnels extended nearly 20 feet.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chippewa River at Mill Pond Park - 20 NOV 2014

After giving two presentations this morning I took a few minutes to stop at Mill Pond Park and take a few photographs. 

A Mallard Duck surfs through one of the weirs at Mill Pond Park

The same Mallard now facing upstream below the weir

Ice has begun to form along the shore of the river and the banks are covered with this week's snowfall

Beetle holes in a standing dead tree

Honeysuckle berries and leaves

Reflections of the sun on the surface of the Chippewa River

Looking across the Chippewa River toward  the south

The sun and clouds - my favorite photo of the month so far

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - One Hundred Fifty- One Years ago today

The Soldiers National Monument at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA - near the site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
19 November 1863

100 Species to Know by Sight - #8 Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel (Sciurrus niger) eating fruit from an ornamental crab apple tree

Species #8 on my list of 100 Species to Know by Sight is an easy one.  There are eight species of squirrels that can be found in Mid-Michigan.  Only three of them are true "tree" squirrels.  The Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest of those three species.  While it can have many color phases, Fox Squirrels in Mid-Michigan are reddish-brown to orange in color.  They share this color with the Red Fox, resulting in the name Fox Squirrel. 

For more information on this species please visit this species profile that I wrote in February 2013.

A resting Fox Squirrel - photo by Shara LeValley

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Winter Adaptations

Winter poses survival challenges for every species in Mid-Michigan

Animals and plants have many strategies that help them survive the winter.  Birds (and some bats and insects) migrate to warmer climates.  Mammals develop thick winter fur to help them stay warm.  Reptiles, amphibians, insects, and a few mammals reduce their metabolic rates and hibernate through the colder months. 

Most non-woody plants die down to their roots.  Deciduous trees shed their leaves to keep from dehydrating.  Pines and other needle-leaf trees (except the Tamarack) have waxy coatings on their narrow leaves that allow them to retain their leaves through the winter. 

Humans either stay indoors or if we go outside pile on more layers of clothes to mimic the layers of fur that our mammal relatives have.

To read about some of adaptations that help species survive in the winter check out these previous posts.

Chickadees in Winter

"I find you galling", said the goldenrod to the fly.

Winter Rabbit Sign

Next Stop, the Subnivean Zone!


Monday, November 17, 2014

The First Snows of the Season

Just in case anyone is not aware...  Wintry weather has arrived in Mid-Michigan and across much of the rest of North America.  After giving a presentation this morning, I decided to take a short trip to Mission Creek Woodland Park to photograph the woods and its new cover of snow.

The trail where it enters the woods near the sledding hill

American Beech trees hold onto many of their leaves through the Winter

A pair of White-tailed Deer bedded down along the edge of the swamp

These leaves have been pawed up by squirrels and deer searching for acorns

The object of the search

Red Oak leaf and snow

Cow Parsnip seeds

A fallen leaf curled around goldenrod seeds

Northern White Cedar growing along the banks of Mission Creek

A closeup of a group of Cedar trunks

Roots of a wind-thrown Cedar

This last pictures show something that I am not very happy about.  I don't like to rant about things on this blog, but this is an issue that bothers me.  The City of Mt. Pleasant cleared two acres of woods at Mission Creek Woodland Park to install a dog park - note the park name.  They had other property available to install a dog park that would not have required destruction of habitat, but decided this was the best option. 

Two acres of formerly wooded property at Mission Creek Woodland Park

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Program Reminder for 12 NOV 2014

Just a reminder that 7:00 PM tonight I will be presenting a program on my search for the Wildflowers of 2014 to the Chippewa Valley Audubon Club.  The CVAC meets in the Veterans Memorial Library at 301 S. University in Mt. Pleasant.  I will be discussing my goals for the year, the rules I set for myself, and the results of my search.  Of course there will be lots of photos.

My first wildflower photo of the year - Skunk Cabbage photographed on 10 APR

My last wildflower photo of the year - Witch-hazel photographed on 14 OCT

A self portrait taken at Mission Creek Park (29 June 2014) during my search for new wildflowers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day 2014!  Please remember to thank a veteran for his or her service to the country.

Photo by Shara LeValley

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gales of November

Today marks the 39th Anniversary of the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the most famous shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

On the evening of 10 November 1975, the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was approaching Whitefish Point, MI with a full load of taconite (iron ore) in a Lake Superior storm.   Despite the hurricane force winds, the ship did not appear to be under distress before it sank suddenly at 7:10 PM.  All twenty-nine men aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald perished aboard the ship.  To this day, the exact cause of the ship's sinking is unknown.

 The ship was commemorated by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".

The wreck site was visited by dive teams in 1989, 1995, and 1995 to survey the site and collect artifacts.  The ship's bell was recovered during the 1995 dive.  The bell was restored and now rests at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, MI.

Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Shipwreck Museum - photo taken many years ago with a very cheap digital camera

For more information on the Edmund Fitzgerald visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Opposite Sides of the Sky (07 NOV 2014)

Last night's full moon allowed me to take this pair of photographs on the way to work this morning.

The view to the West of the setting moon...

And the view to the East of the rising sun...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

100 Species to Know by Sight - #6 Monarch Butterfly and #7 Viceroy Butterfly

There are some species of plants and animals that every student (and adult) should be able to identify by sight.  Some species are specific to a certain region, other species are found over a very broad territory.  The sixth species on my list of 100 Species to Know by Sight is the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  The Monarch can be found across most of the United States and Southern Canada and is one of the most recognized (and loved species) found across its range.

The Monarch is a very distinctive, large (3.5 to 4 inch wingspan), orange-and-black butterfly. 

Monarch Butterfly on New England Aster

Monarch Butterfly - this butterfly was probing the surface of a county road with its proboscis to obtain salts and other minerals

Monarch Butterfly on a Common Milkweed flower.  This species is its larval host plant.
Male and female butterflies are easy easy to distinguish.  Males can be identified by the presence of a scent gland on each of their hind wings.

Monarch Butterfly - the arrows point to the pair of scent glands on its hindwings

Monarch Butterfly - the scent glands are also visible from the underside of the wing

In Mid-Michigan (really across most of its range) there is only one butterfly species you could possibly confuse with the Monarch - the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus).  The color pattern of the Viceroy is almost exactly the same as that of the Monarch.  The two species share a type of mimicry known as Mullerian mimicry in which two (or more) distasteful, poisonous, or otherwise harmful species have evolved to look like each other.  Because the Viceroy and Monarch share this relationship, the Viceroy is my seventh species on my 100 Species to Know by Sight. 

The Viceroy is typically smaller than the Monarch with a 3 to 3 inch wingspan, but there can be a size overlap in the two species.  To identify a Viceroy look for a semi-circular line that extends across its back pair of wings.  To me, this line looks like a smile.  The Monarch lacks this line.

Viceroy Butterfly- the arrow points to the line that distinguishes this species from the Monarch

Viceroy - this identifying mark is visible on both the upper and lower surfaces of the wing