Monday, August 31, 2015

A Sign of Changing Times

Eastern Cottonwood leaves

The Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) trees at my office have begun to change color and fall, providing a reminder that summer is winding down and the fall equinox is just over three weeks away (23 SEP 2015).

Friday, August 28, 2015

A day with a wildlife biologist

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in something really cool.  I got to tag along with Heather Shaw, wildlife biologist for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, while she checked on a series of sites designed to identify and monitor Bobcat (Lynx rufus) populations in Isabella County.  A graduate of Central Michigan University, Heather has previously worked as a wildlife technician for the the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game and a biologist for Ducks Unlimited in both Michigan and North Dakota.  In addition to working for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, she is also completing work on her masters degree from CMU.

Wildlife biologist Heather Shaw measures and records tracks at a scent station

Like most people, I have never seen a live bobcat in the wild.  Bobcats tend to be secretive, and are often widely dispersed across large territories.

How do you monitor a population like this?

Heather is using a series of scent stations situated along roadside transects in likely bobcat habitat.  What this means, is that along a selected path (a transect) she was setting up a bed of sand to record footprints and baiting it with a scent tablet to attract bobcat (and other predators).  When an animal investigated the scent tablet, their footprints would recorded in the sand, enabling Heather to build a picture of the locations where bobcats can be found.

Scent stations were set up along the edges of local roads - sometimes in built-up areas
Other stations were located in more rural areas

Why is this important?

Heather is not the only person setting up these stations and recording data.  Other biologists around the state are recording the same type of information.  This information is used by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to set seasons and bag limits for bobcat hunting and trapping.  Bobcat hunting and trapping are currently allowed in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, with Isabella County included in the the hunting/trapping zone.

What did we find?

We followed three transects that had been set up earlier in the week.  Each transect consisted of a number of scent stations spaced 1/3 mile apart.  These transects were set up directly along the sides of roads so they are easy to check.  Animals including bobcats will use roads as travel corridors, so these stations were likely to be exposed to any bobcats traversing the area.

Each station consisted of a smooth bed of sand approximately 2 to 3 feet in diameter.  A fatty acid scent tablet was placed in the center of each station.  These tablets are attract many species of predators and are even investigated by herbivores such as deer.  I could smell the tablets.  Bobcats have a better developed sense of smell than humans so they should definitely be able to smell it.
Tracks circling a scent tablet

We ended up finding lots of tracks - domestic dog, house cat, coyote, fox (probable), opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer, wild turkey.  Some tracks were not distinct enough to positively identify, but yes we did find bobcat tracks at several of the stations.  We found definite bobcat tracks along two of the transects and possible bobcat tracks along the third transect.

A likely bobcat track - this track definitely belongs to a feline and is probably too big for a domestic cat

A clear pair of bobcat tracks - with coyote tracks in the background
At each station, Heather would measure and record all possible bobcat tracks as well as recording tracks of other species.  Then she "reset" the site using a board to smooth the sand and replaced the scent tab if needed.  

Heather Shaw resets a scent station  only yards from M-20

This study is wrapping up for the year, but Heather plans to repeat the study next year and hopes to incorporate trail cameras.  Trail cameras will take those probable tracks and turn them into a definite "yes" or "no".  Heather has other possible wildlife study plans

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Upcoming Event - Connecting with the "Wild Life" (Saturday 29 August 2015)

On Saturday August 29th I will be participating in the 3rd annual Connecting with the "Wild Life" event at Deerfield Nature Park from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM.  Come and unplug from all of life's electronic distractions and plug back into nature.  Deerfield Park is located at 2425 W. Remus Rd (M-20), about seven miles west of Business US 127.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sunrise over Isabella County

Just a photograph today.  This image was taken this morning on Deerfield Road just to the southeast of Mt. Pleasant.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Out! Out! Darned Spot!

The office that I work in is shared by two agencies: the Isabella Conservation District (that I work for) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (a branch of the US Department of Agriculture).  Because both of these agencies have the word "Conservation" in their names, people are often confused by what we do - many people come into the office thinking they have found a branch of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  One of the things that happens frequently is people will bring in plants or insects that they ask us to identify.  Or they bring in a part of a diseased plant (or a photo of the plant) and ask us both for identification of the problem and for a solution. 

My desk is the first one inside the door so I often end up seeing these things first - even if I'm not here they often end up on my desk with a name and phone number asking me to call.

One question that I answer on an annual basis is about this phenomenon:

Tar-spots on Norway Maple

What are those dark spots on the leaves of my maple tree?

Those dark spot are caused by a fungus in the genus Rhytisma.  They commonly appear on maples during the summer months.  Early in the season they will appear as small yellow dots.  As the season progresses and the fungus grows and matures, the dots become wider and darker.  At this stage they are commonly referred to as tar-spots or tar-spotting because of their resemblance to drops of tar dripped on the leaves.

Another Norway Maple leaf with tar-spotting

Will it kill the tree?

No, even though tar-spots are unattractive, they will not kill the tree.  By the time the fungus progresses to the tar-spot stage the leaves have begun to slow down they production of sugars and are preparing to drop from the tree.  In some cases of serious infection, the tree may drop its leaves earlier than it would if it were not infected.  The tree suffers no permanent harm.

Silver Maple with tar-spots

Is there anything that I can do?

This is the part where I have to be the bearer of bad news to concerned landowners.  There really is nothing you can do in the short run to stop tar-spotting once it has begun in your trees.  The only real thing that can be done is to try to stop the cycle and prevent it from recurring.  The fungus matures in the leaves once they fall from the tree and eventually releases millions of spores that can reinfect the tree.  To stop the cycle, you have to remove all fallen leaves from the site.  Even this is not 100% effective as spores will often blow back in from other nearby infected trees.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Upcoming Event - Photography at the Peterson Natural Area (Wednesday 26 August 2015)

If you are looking for something to do next Wednesday (26 August), join me and some other nature photography buffs at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Peterson Natural Area for a photography outing.  This is not a formal workshop, but rather an informal chance to get together and take photographs with other nature lovers.  It's a great opportunity to learn what techniques and equipment other photographers use to get their shots.  Participants are invited to share some of their photos on the CWC's social media pages where a winning photograph will be selected.  This is also a good opportunity to learn more about some of the wildflowers that are currently blooming.  This event is free, but participants are asked to register here so we know how many people to expect.  If anyone in the Mt. Pleasant area would like to go, but lacks a ride, let me know and I may be able to provide one.

Peterson Natural Area is located in Mecosta County near the intersections of Angling Road and 180th Avenue.  The property is approximately 79 acres in size and consists mainly of former farm field with small areas of woodland.  A stream runs through the center of the property.  Peterson Natural Area is a great place to see (and photograph) some of our spectacular late-summer wildflowers. 

Here are a couple photographs that I took at Peterson during a trip last August.

Apple tree, Joe-pye Weed, and goldenrod
Joe-pye Weed


Horsemint or Dotted Monarda
Katydid on Joe-pye Weed

Cut-leaf Coneflower and Joe-pye Weed

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Field Trip - Grand Traverse Butterfly House & Bug Zoo

Last Saturday I visited one of my favorite new destinations in Michigan - the Grand Traverse Butterfly House & Bug Zoo.  Located at just east of Traverse City 8840 E. M-72, Williamsburg, MI, the Grand Traverse Butterfly House is about a two hour drive from Mid-Michigan.  It's well worth the trip.

After a one-month trial run last October, the Butterfly House officially open on May 1st, 2015.  Their open season will run until the end of October.  Daily hours are from 10:00AM to 6:00PM.  Admission is $9 for ages 13 and older, $6 for ages 4-12, and children under age 3 are admitted free.  Groups of 10 or more qualify for reduced rates.

The Grand Traverse Butterfly House & Bug Zoo

Although the facility small it packs a lot into its space.  With the butterfly house taking up about half of its floor plan.  In the photograph above, the gift shop, bug zoo and offices are in the portion of the building to the left and the butterflies are in the translucent paneled section to the right.

The Butterfly House is operated by a helpful and knowledgeable staff of paid employees and volunteers.  After a brief introduction that included information on the life cycle of butterflies and moths we were off on our self-guided tour.

A butterfly mural

First stop, the butterfly house.  One thing that we liked about the butterfly house is that the rules are clearly posted both outside and inside the entrance.  The one rule that we particularly liked was the "no touching" rule.  In butterfly houses that allow touching, the butterflies are often so harassed by visitors that they rarely land in places where they can be closely observed.

Rules must be followed

Immediately inside the entrance to the butterfly house is a small glass-fronted room where the butterflies (and moths) emerge from the chrysalises and cocoons before being released into the habitat.  Like most other butterfly houses, the Grand Traverse Butterfly House does not rear its butterflies from eggs.  instead it received regular shipments of chrysalises and cocoons from facilities that specialize in rearing. Upon receipt, the chrysalises are pinned to foam covered rods where they can be observed by the public.

A volunteer talks to Shara about butterfly rearing

Freshly pinned chrysalises

Newly emerged butterflies

One of the best things about this butterfly house was its openness.  There was lots of room to move around inside.  I am sure that this design feature was largely done to make sure that it was accessible to individuals in wheelchairs, but after experiencing the often-cramped conditions of other butterfly exhibits this openness was refreshing.

Inside the Grand Traverse Butterfly House

The butterflies in the exhibit were very active during our visit.  Temperatures inside the butterfly house were over 90 degrees with a very high humidity.  Most of the butterfly species in the exhibit are from the tropics and love this combination of heat and humidity.  They were especially active when the sun was out.  When a cloud drifted over, many of the butterflies would stop flying.

A male butterfly courts a female

Butterfly fight!

Because the butterflies were so active, many of them were very difficult to photograph.  However, when they are really active, they need to pause occasionally to feed.  The butterfly house has lots of nectar plants for this purpose.

An Emerald Peacock butterfly

A Scarlet Mormon butterfly

In addition to nectar, many of the butterflies will also feed on over-ripe fruit.  Several dishes with bananas, oranges, and other fruits were scattered throughout the exhibit.

The rule about not touching the butterflies - there is no rule about the butterflies touching you.  Shara and I both had several butterflies land on us while were walking around.  We ended up having the butterfly house to ourselves for nearly more than 20 minutes!  At that point another family came in.  We stuck around for a few more minutes before exiting to check out the "bug zoo".  This also did not disappoint with a demonstration honeybee hive, several species of tarantulas, scorpions, beetles, mantids, and roaches.  They also had axolotls!

One of many tarantula species

A whip-scorpion from Vietnam

A Giant Cave Roach - right at the top of the stump

One of several axolotls in the "bug zoo"
Another axolotl shows off its gills that it retains as an adult
Before leaving, we walked through the Butterfly House's gift shop with its selection of butterfly and insect related products.

The giftshop at the Grand Traverse Butterfly House

Grand Traverse Butterfly House & Bug Zoo quickly jumped onto the list of must-visit places for us.  It's one more reason to plan a visit to northwest Michigan.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

If you look at this blog on a regular basis (or not), you will probably have noticed that I take lots of photographs.  Every once in a while I do something with them besides posting them on here.  Back in June I entered four of my photographs in the 2015 Wild Ones Photo Contest.

Wild Ones is a national not-for-profit organization with local chapters that teaches about the many benefits of growing native wildflowers in people’s yards.  I belong to the Mid-Mitten Chapter which is based out the Chippewa Nature Center.  The national organization holds an annual photo contest for its members.      I entered four photographs this year. The first two were in the category “Flora”.  The first image was taken on 31 July 2014 at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Quigley Creek Natural Area during a flora and fauna survey.  It shows a group of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) flowers.  Indian Pipe is one of the few plants found in Michigan that lacks the ability to produce its own food - its cells lack the chlorophyll necessary for photosynthesis.  Instead it acts as a parasite toward other plants, stealing sugars from their roots.

Indian Pipe Grouping

The second photograph was taken at in the Native Pollinator Garden at the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum on 15 June 2015.  It is a close-up of a Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf.  Prairie Dock leaves are massive, this leaf measured approximately 18 inches from stem to tip.  In this picture you can see the network of veins that transport water and nutrients throughout the leaf.

Prairie Dock Infrastructure

I also entered two photographs in the category “Wild Ones in Action – People outside attending events and activities”.  

The first of these photographs was taken at on the CWC's Schaftenaar Preserve at Halls Lake  on 13 June 2014.  It shows CWC Excecutive Director Stan Lilley photographing a Wild Calla (Calla palustris) during a flora and fauna survey.  I titled this photograph "Focus".

CWC Executive Director Stan Lilley focuses on a Wild Calla

The second photograph that I entered in this category was also taken at a CWC property.  This photo was taken at the Peterson Natural Area in Mecosta County on 16 August 2014.  It shows participants of a wildflower walk (Nicole Levasseur, Cathy Murray, and Ralph Crew) using a field guide to identify a Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata).  Stan Lilley also appears in the background of this photo.  I titled this photograph "Positive ID" for the photo contest.

Nicole LeVasseur, Cathy Murray, and Ralph Crew look up Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Yesterday, to my surprise, I opened my mail to find 1st Place and 2nd Place ribbons for the “Wild Ones in Action” category - with "Focus" placing first and "Positive ID" placing second.  In addition to the ribbons, I received gift certificates for $10 and $5 from the Wild Ones Store.  These photographs will probably appear in a Wild Ones newsletter over the next year and may be included in their annual calendar.  More info about Wild Ones can be found at their website

Monday, August 17, 2015

Field Trip - Michigan's Largest Giant Sequoia

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly.  It does say "Michigan's Largest Giant Sequoia".

The Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is native to the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains Range in California.  They are among the largest and oldest living organisms on earth.  Record trees have been measured as tall as 311 feet (94.8 meters) and with a trunk diameter of 56 feet (17 meters).  There were more than 3500 growth rings counted on the stump of one tree!

The trees that are found in Michigan are babies in comparison.  Because the Giant Sequoia is not native to the state, any Sequoia found here has obviously been planted by man.

The largest Giant Sequoia in Michigan can be found at the Michigan Audubon Society's Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary.  Lake Bluff Sanctuary is located just north of Manistee, MI at 2890 Lakeshore Road (just north of Orchard Beach State Park.  This is about a two hour drive from Mid-Michigan.

The Lake Bluff Sanctuary was donated to Michigan Audubon in 1988.  The property was previously an estate owned by Edward and Gertrude Gray.  Mr. Gray was the nephew of the founder of the Morton Salt and managed the company's salt plant in Manistee.  They purchased the property in 1936 and began building a home.  The home is now operated by Michigan Audubon as a Bed & Breakfast (rates are $80 - 95 per night depending on the room).  During our visit to the sanctuary we booked a weekend for later this fall.

Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary Bed & Breakfast
On the grounds of the estate they established an arboretum with over 70 varieties of trees from around the world.  One of the species that was planted was the Giant Sequoia.  Six of these were planted in 1948.  Of those six, tree remain alive.  The tallest of these is approximately 95 feet (approx. 29 meters) tall.

Michigan's largest Giant Sequoia - Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary, Manistee

The above photo doesn't look that impressive until you add a human being into it for scale.  Here is a photo of me standing next to the tree.

A photograph of me with Michigan's largest Giant Sequoia - photo by Shara LeValley

These lower branches have died out naturally as the branches above shade them out.  Eventually the tree will drop these branches.

Giant Sequoia at Lake Bluff Sanctuary

One thing that amazes me about sequoias is the relatively small size of their cones.  The cones are not much larger than those of a red pine.  The seeds that come from the cones are only about 1/4 inch long.

Giant Sequoia cone - photo by Shara LeValley

Giant Sequoias were not the only interesting trees planted in the arboretum.  We also found this Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), American Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and many other other species.

Me standing next to a Dawn Redwood at Lake Bluff Sanctuary - Photo by Shara LeValley

Ginkgo leaves and fruit

American Tulip Tree leaves

Outside of the arboretum, much of the grounds have been restored with native plants.


Other features of the site include over 300 feet of Lake Michigan Shoreline, two miles of walking trails, and a great view of the lake from atop the bluff.

The view from Lake Bluff Sanctuary

Michigan Audubon also operates a small visitor center at the preserve.  I doubt that there is usually anyone manning the center, but it is a nice place to get out of the weather for a few minutes.

Visitor center at Lake Bluff Sanctuary

With everything that the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary has to offer for nature lovers, this is definitely worth the two hour drive from Mid-Michigan.  The Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary is open daily from dawn until dusk.  There is no admission charge to the grounds but donations are encouraged.