Monday, November 30, 2015

Northwest Michigan Eagle Release (28 November 2015)

                                                    I want to fly like an eagle
                                                    To the sea
                                                    Fly like an eagle
                                                    Let my spirit carry me
                                                    I want to fly like an eagle
                                                    Till I'm free

                                                                     -Steve Miller
                                                                      "Fly Like an Eagle"

On Saturday (28 November 2015) we were lucky enough to attend the release of successfully rehabilitated Bald Eagle near Empire, MI.  The eagle, nicknamed "Miracle Boy" was struck by a car in Wexford County and rehabilitated by Rebecca Lessard at Wings of Wonder.  Wings of Wonder (WOW) is raptor education and rehabilitation center located near Empire.

I have given information on Wings of Wonder in two previous blog posts.  Rebecca has brought several of the WOW ambassador birds to Mt. Pleasant for the 2014 and 2015 International Migratory Bird Day Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center.  (Rebecca and the WOW birds will be back again in 2016!)  In April 2015, Shara and I were lucky enough to get a private tour of the WOW facility.

Releasing injured raptors back to the wild is the ultimate goal of Wings of Wonder.  Unfortunately, many birds that come in to Wings of Wonder are too badly injured to be released, this was initially thought of "Miracle Boy".  He had suffered a spinal injury and was unable to walk - otherwise the bird was healthy.  After veterinary consultation, he was given a course of steroids to reduce swelling.  With luck, this would allow the spine to heal on its own.

Fortunately, this was exactly what happened and less than a month after being found the eagle was healthy enough to release back to the wild.

There was a large crowd of several hundred people on hand to witness the release.

Despite the cold temperature, a large crowd was on hand for the release.

Before the release, Rebecca talked to the crowd about the mission of Wings of Wonder, the history of "Miracle Boy", and how the release would proceed.  Member of the Wings of Wonder board of directors walked through the crowd collecting donations.  WOW is completed funded by donations from the public.

Rebecca Lessard and two members of the WOW board of directors.

Rebecca acting out a scene from the eagle's recovery

Soon it was time for the release.  The first step was to collect the eagle from a pet carrier where it had been waiting - Rebecca said it was a challenge to catch the eagle from the flight pen so it could be released.  This is a good sign that it is a healthy bird.

The crowd anxiously awaits...

Getting a secure grip on a mature eagle is a delicate procedure.

After getting a grip on the eagle that would keep both eagle and handler from getting hurt, Rebecca walked around to show the bird to the crowd.  "Miracle Boy" weighs approximately 6 pounds and has a wingspan of over 6 feet.  He was quite a handful, fortunately Rebecca has many years experience handling large raptors.

It was great to see the number of kids in attendance - their reactions were priceless.

A happy rehabilitator - release was just minutes away.

Rebecca is great with crowds - patiently answering questions.  The eagle was also patient - he had no other choice.

Check out those talons and that hooked beak - perfect for catching and tearing apart prey animals.

After a few minutes of showing the eagle to the crowd, it was time for the release.  With a countdown of  5.  4.  3.  2.  1.

Counting down to release.

Springing into flight!

Gaining altitude!

He didn't look back!

With that, "Miracle Boy" was gone, a healthy wild bird once more.  By Spring, he should be back into his home territory in Wexford County.

If you are able, please support Wings of Wonder with a donation - all of the money goes to the birds.

For up to date information about WOW events check out their Facebook page.

Me (in my new Wings of Wonder cap) and Rebecca Lessard

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Universe in a Sheet of Ice

This morning the low spots in the parking lot were covered with sheets of ice.  You may just see a pattern of bubbles, cracks, and the underlying asphalt.  To me it looks like an image of deep space - stars, galaxies, nebulae, comets, all dancing through the void.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank You Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe!

Last week, the Isabella Conservation District received approximately 200 thousand dollars from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe

As part of an agreement with the State of Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe distributes 2% of its earnings from electronic gaming at its two casinos to local governments and schools.  To get any of this money, government agencies and schools have to submit a grant proposal that details what they propose to do, how it will benefit the local and tribal community, and includes a detailed budget for the project.

The money that the Isabella Conservation District received will allow us to run a community household hazardous waste disposal program and a tire disposal program in 2016.

More importantly, from my perspective, it will also allow our Environmental Education Program to operate for another year.  This means that we will be able to provide classroom programs on environmental and conservation education in local schools through the 2016 - 17 school year.  Since 2009, our programs have been presented to over thirty thousand students in the local schools.   This year I expect to provide more than 400 classroom programs, and expect to do the same for the 2016 - 17 school year.

Thank you to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council and all employees of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe who support the Isabella Conservation District Environmental Education Program!

Chi Miigwetch!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Birds of a feather...

Right now I am doing lots of presentations about birds and their adaptations.  The first thing I do during this presentation is ask the students "How do we know if an animal is a bird?"  This gets a bunch of different responses.

A bird has wings!

I have wings, but I am not a bird...

A bird has a beak!

I have a beak, but I am not a bird...
A bird can fly!

I can fly, but I am not a bird...

Sooner or later, someone will say that a bird has feathers.  I challenge students to come up with an animal that has feathers that is not a bird - the responses are interesting.  Yesterday alone I heard the following answers: a duck (bird), a penguin (bird), an ostrich (bird), a bear (not a bird - does not have feathers).

Every living creature that has feathers a bird.  Let me say that again.  Every single living creature that has feathers is a bird - every single one.

Once we have figured out that a bird is an animal with feathers, we finally start to discuss the different roles that feathers are adapted for.  We usually come up with five different roles.

1)  Feathers give birds the ability to fly. Although not every bird has this ability - no birds would be capable of flight without feathers.

A Herring Gull flying over Lake Superior

An Osprey soaring over Lake Champlain

2)  Feathers keep birds warm.  Fluffy down feathers trap heated air close to a bird's body, allowing them to retain much of their body heat.  In cold conditions, micro-muscles attached to each feather will fluff up the feathers to trap even more air.

This Junco doesn't mind the cold

Snowy Owls don't migrate south to avoid the cold - they come south to find more food.

3) Feathers keep birds (mostly) dry.  The structure of outer contour and flight feathers prevents most water from reaching the fluffy down feathers underneath.  Aquatic birds such as ducks and geese have glands that produce oils.  The birds spread these oils on their feathers through the process of grooming - making themselves even more waterproof.

A Mallard's waterproof feathers keep it warm and dry even on the edge of a frozen river.

A Common Loon dives below the surface after fish.

4)  Feathers help birds stay hidden.  Many birds use their feathers as camouflage.  Sometimes all birds of a particular species will use their feathers as camouflage.  In other species only the females will have dull-colored feathers that help them blend in.

This Barred Owl blends in with the bark of this Eastern Hemlock tree.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds use their dull colors to avoid predators

5)  Birds use their feathers to show off.  In may species, male birds use brightly colored feathers to intimidate rivals and show off to potential mates. 

Male Scarlet Tanagers are shockingly bright red.
A large patch of red and yellow on the shoulder of this Red-Winged Blackbird announces his health to rivals and potential mates.

Can you think of any other roles that a bird's feathers are adapted for?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A blast from the past

One of the local schools that I visit is Winn Elementary.  Way back in 1984 - 85, I was a student in the fourth grade at Winn Elementary.  While looking through a file cabinet yesterday, I came across an artwork that I did when I was a student at Winn.  This drawing was entered into a stamp design contest through the US Postal Service.  I was a big stamp collector at that age - I was also into nature as the coral reef theme shows.  Obviously I didn't win the contest... but I like to think that my drawing skills have improved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Word of Thanks

Today is my birthday.  To my family, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and everyone else who has put up with my nonsense over the past forty years - thanks for everything!  I know how lucky I am.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Nature Geek Vacation Destinations - Aldo Leopold Shack

If you are ever near Baraboo, WI make sure to stop and visit the Aldo Leopold Center and more importantly the Aldo Leopold Shack

The Shack
Leopold is widely regarded as the father of wildlife management and is one of the pioneering figures of environmental conservation.  In 1935 while working as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold purchased a tract of worn out farmland near the Wisconsin River.  For the next 14 years, this piece of land would become Leopold's personal experimental station where he and his family sought to repair the damage done by deforestation, wildfire, and poor farming practices.  Included on property was a run-down chicken coop that Leopold repaired and expanded to use as a cottage during weekend and summer stays at the property - this building became known as "the Shack". 

The land around the Shack looks very different than it did during Aldo Leopold's lifetime
Many of the ideas that Leopold formulated on this site were condensed into his only commercially published book "A Sand County Almanac".  This book is required reading for students of natural resources across the country and should be on everyone's reading list.  Unfortunately, Leopold died of before the book was published; he suffered a heart attack while helping a neighbor fight a grass fire.  The conservation ideas that Leopold championed during his lifetime have inspired generations to conserve and improve natural resources around the world. 

As someone who works to educate others about the natural world and conservation, Aldo Leopold is one of my personal heroes.  It was exciting to visit the site described in "A Sand County Almanac" and see the legacy of Leopold's work.  A special thrill was to sit in a "Leopold bench" in front of the Shack.  Leopold benches are so-named because there are several photographs of Aldo Leopold sitting in benches of this design that he constructed at the site out of scrap lumber.  I have built several of these benches in the past for schools and plan to build more in the future.

Being a nature geek at the Aldo Leopold Shack - near Baraboo, WI

Monday, November 16, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

2015 Firearms Deer Season


Sunday (15 NOV) is opening day for the 2015 Michigan Firearms Deer Season.  Good luck to all of the Michigan hunters!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The impact of invasive species

Earlier this week I shared a photograph of the tunnels created by Emerald Ash Borer larvae (Agrilus planipennis) under the bark of a Green Ash tree (Fraxinus pennsylvanica).  This photo was taken on Monday at Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant.

Emerald Ash Borer galleries in a Green Ash log

As the larvae chews through the layers of phloem, xylem, and cambium under the bark of the ash tree, it disrupts the flow of water, dissolved minerals, and sugar throughout the tree.  If there are enough beetle larvae making these tunnels, the tree soon dies.

Dead Green Ash trees at Chipp-A-Waters Park

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans Day 2015

Happy Veterans Day 2015!  Please remember to thank a veteran for his or her service to the country.

Major General George Gordon Meade monument - Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, PA

Monday, November 9, 2015

Native Species Profile - Great Blue Heron

When I teach students about birds, we talk about how birds are the only living creatures with feathers.  Then I ask if there was ever any other animal that was covered with feathers.  There is usually at least one student that knows the answer - dinosaurs!  Dinosaurs are birds!  Not every dinosaur was a bird, but every bird is a dinosaur.  That robin hopping around your yard - it's a dinosaur.  Your Thanksgiving turkey - also a dinosaur.  It's difficult to see the connection between birds and dinosaurs when you see a chicken or a chickadee, but sometimes the relationship stares you in the face.

Herons' eyes are located on the sides of their heads - they don't see things directly in front of them all that well.

This is the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias).  It is Michigan's second largest bird after the Sandhill Crane.  Mature Great Blue Herons can be between 38 and 54 inches tall and have a wingspan of 65 to 79 inches!  Having one take flight at close range is always a thrill.

Herons are an ancient group of birds.  Although fossils are rare, they have been found dating back as far as 60 million years ago.  With their large size and ancient heritage, it is no stretch to see these birds as living dinosaurs.

A Great Blue Heron wades among water lilies.

It's even easier to see the connection when you watch them hunting.  Great Blue Herons are pure predators.  Their long legs allow them to stalk silently through shallow waters and along shorelines.  The largest percentage of their diet is composed of fish, but they also eat amphibians, reptiles, small birds, and large invertebrates.  Sometimes they can be seen stalking through field in search of mice, voles, and other small mammals.  When prey is sited, the heron will curl its long neck and then rapidly extend it to stab with the long spear-like beak.  They then swallow their prey whole - often tilting their head skyward to have gravity help the process.

A Great Blue Heron tilts its head for a better view of its prey.

The Great Blue Heron is often a year-round resident of Mid-Michigan.  Many will remain in the region throughout the winter, unless all surface water is frozen over.  Other herons will join in a migration that may take them as far south as Central America or the Caribbean.

Heron tracks on the Chippewa River ( January 2014)

During the majority of the year Great Blue Herons are solitary birds.  However, in springtime, Great Blue Herons (and related species) will nest in communal nesting colonies called heronries (or heron rookeries).  Each heron pair will build a  platform of sticks lined with softer materials such as grasses and moss.  In an established heronry, the birds will often build upon the work of previous years.  Large nests can be 4 feet across and nearly as tall.

A small heronry in Gratiot County
It is easy to find herons.  In Mid-Michigan any body of water (including backyard fish ponds) is likely to attract the attention of a heron.  The Chippewa River in Mt. Pleasant always has a resident population of herons.  To see large numbers, visit the heronry along US-127 near Houghton Lake or the Maple River State Game Area between Ithaca and St. Johns.

Great Blue Heron in the shallows at Mill Pond Park - scan of a photo from 2005

Basic Information

Great Blue Heron 
Ardea herodias

Size: 38-54” long, 65-79” wingspan

Habitat:  wetlands, riverbanks, streams, lakes, ponds, ditches

Eats:  fish, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals

Nest:  in trees, large platform of sticks, nest in colonies

Year-round resident

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pattern and Detail

I have been very busy this school year.  In October alone I presented fifty-two classroom programs.  Unfortunately, being this busy teaching about the outdoors means that I have a lot less time to explore the outdoors than I would like.  So instead of sharing new photographs I am exploring some of my old images, searching for patterns and details.