Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Photos of 2015

For each of the past two years I have shared my favorite photos from the year.  Here is the 2015 edition.  Enjoy.

Most of the photos that I take fall in one of two categories.  I am either trying to take a "pretty" picture or I am trying to document something (and don't care if the photo is "pretty").  A smaller portion of my photos fall into a third category - abstract.  These pictures show unique details or patterns (rock, bark, leaves, etc.).  This first image was taken on January 14th and shows broken shards of ice, refrozen into a new pattern, crossed over by animal tracks.  Is it "pretty"?  Maybe, but it's definitely unique.

I love photographing clouds and "bad" weather.  Dark clouds add so much drama to a landscape and their brooding nature can take a hum-drum image and make it something special.  This photo was taken at the Forest Hill Nature Area on March 26th.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year End Gifts

My wife and I are lucky.  We have all of the things that we need and we make enough money to have most of the things that we want.  We even have some money left over to give to organizations that we believe in.  For many years we gave money to a number of national organizations, but in recent years we have focused our giving on several local organizations.

If you are reading this blog, it is probably plain to see that we care a lot about nature and the environment.  If you have any spare money and are looking to make a donation here are a couple of organizations that I know can will put the money to good use.

Chippewa Watershed Conservancy
The Chippewa Watershed Conservancy is our local land conservancy.  Their mission is to protect natural habitat and open space in the counties of the Chippewa River Watershed (includes the Chippewa, Pine, and Coldwater River).  The CWC operates in five Mid-Michigan counties: Isabella, Clare, Gratiot, Mecosta, and Montcalm.  They currently protect over 4,200 acres in those counties! That's over 6 1/2 square miles through a combination of privately owned conservation easements and Conservancy-owned preserves.

In addition to preserving land, the CWC works to educate the public about land and resource conservation, natural habitats, and the species that can be found throughout Mid-Michigan.  I donate my time as well as money - I lead many of the education walks such as this one coming up in January.  I like giving to the CWC because I know that the money will be used in the local community.  You can designate how you would like the CWC to use your money.  They are currently running a campaign to purchase the highest point in Isabella County as a preserve, but right now their operating budget is a higher concern.  The CWC receives much of its operating funds through grants from local foundations - their most recent grant request was tabled until the next giving cycle, putting the CWC in a deficit for the upcoming year.  Our most recent donation was toward the operating budget.

To donate to the CWC visit their website.

Wings of Wonder
Wings of Wonder (WOW) is a raptor sanctuary and rehabilitation center located in Empire, MI.  WOW rehabilitates and releases injured raptors across northern Michigan.  In addition to rehabilitating raptors for return to the wild, WOW houses a flock of Ambassador Birds that WOW founder and executive director Rebecca Lessard uses in raptor education programs across Michigan. Rebecca and the WOW birds have been to Mt. Pleasant each of the past two years to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day at the Ziibiwing Center.  They will be back again on Saturday May 14th for the 2016 celebration.

Wings of Wonder operates entirely on donations and presentation fees.  Every dollar that is donated goes directly toward the care of the Ambassador Birds and the care and rehabilitation of injured wild raptors.  Rebecca and the WOW board of directors (and volunteers) do an amazing job!  We are very happy to make an annual donation to support WOW.

To donate to WOW visit their website.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Let me tell you 'bout the frog and the snake...

I have lots of stories.  When I show one of my photographs in a classroom, I often have a story that goes along with it.  Unfortunately, many of my best stories don't translate well to the written form.  This is because my storytelling usually has a physical component - I don't just tell a story, I act it out.  So until the day that I become a better writer (not likely to happen), or I start to record videos of my stories (even less likely to happen), many of my stories can only be experienced in person.

There are a few, a very few, of my photographs that can almost tell the story on their own.  One example is this sequence of pictures from 2006.

I remember discovering this Common Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) struggling with a Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) in the woods at Mission Creek Woodland Park.

I have made a habit of discovering interesting things not only by sight, but also by smell and sound.  My attention was drawn to this pair by a horrible grunting squeak that I couldn't replicate if I tried.  It was not a sound that I usually hear in a forest or anywhere else for that matter.  It was so unique that I had to search for the source.  When I first spied the snake and frog in the leaf litter, the snake had a hold of a single hind leg of the frog.  This was enough...

 A garter snakes jaws are lined with many small needle-sharp teeth.  They help the snake get a grip on struggling prey.  By walking its jaws along the frog's body, it was quickly able to position the frog in the preferred head-first swallowing position.  The frog had no real defense for this - it tried to puff up its body to make itself to large to swallow, but the garter snake is an expert on frogs.

I think I will let the snake show you.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Shortest Day

Today (21 December) is officially the shortest day of 2015.  Mid-Michigan will only receive 8 hours 55 minutes 23 seconds of sunlight today - or we would if it wasn't supposed to rain all day.  From now until June 21st, the length of each day will lengthen until Mid-Michigan receives 15 hours 26 minutes 57 seconds of sunlight, at which point the length of days will again begin to decrease.  The days when the length of daylight is at its minimum and maximum are known as the solstices.

In honor of the Winter Solstice, the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy scheduled a sunrise walk for this morning at the Sylvan Solace Preserve west of Mt. Pleasant.  Unfortunately, the dreary weather limited interest in the event.  Nevertheless, a small group of four dedicated nature lovers made a walk around the property's River Loop trail. 

Trying to call a late-to-bed Eastern Screech Owl

Checking out a QR code

Observing the Chippewa River

Overcast skies hid the sunrise from view

A White-tailed Deer Skull along the trail

A close-up view of the deer skull

Looking along the River Loop trail

Pileated Woodpeckers have been hard at work

CWC intern Jonathon Breithaupt has an eye for debris

American Beech saplings hold tight to their leaves

A small colorful fungus or lichen covering a dead sapling

Friday, December 18, 2015

A quick "cone"parison

Yesterday, my scheduled presentations were cancelled due to a scheduling conflict.  This meant that for the first time since September, I had a day in the office with no scheduled presentations.  Normally on a day like that I try to get outside and spend some time with my camera, but the weather was drab and dreary, with flat light and gray skies that make photographs drab and dreary.  Instead i took a little bit of time to focus on a project that has been on my mind for a while.

Being someone who teaches about nature and science,  I tend to collect things.  A quick survey of my desk reveals 10 rocks, 5 fossils, 2 pieces of petrified wood, two jars with bugs that I really should pin, and other assorted odds and ends.

Here is another collection - cones.

With the exception of the large cone in the back, these five cones were all collected in Michigan.  Only two are native to the state.  From the front to the back these cones are the Giant Sequoia , Eastern White Pine (left), Jack Pine (center), Norway Spruce (right), and Coulter Pine.

The smallest cone of the bunch, the Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) was collected at a park in Mt. Pleasant.  This cone is about 2 inches long and a little over an inch across.  The Jack Pine is native to Michigan.  It can reach a height of about 78 feet (22 meters), but rarely grows that tall due to poor soil conditions across much of its native range.

This Jack Pine cone weighs in at just 7 grams (0.247 ounces).

The other Michigan native in this bunch is the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus).  This cone was collected at the Brady Cemetery at Forest Hill Nature Area in Gratiot County.  It measures approximately 5.5 inches long and 2.25 inches across.  It weighed in at 17 grams (0.600 ounces).  Some White Pines that were logged during the 19th century were reputed to measure 230 feet (70 meters) tall!

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) cone was collected from a tree in the parking lot at the Isabella Conservation District Office.  This Norway Spruce is not native to Michigan but has been extensively planted throughout the state.  This cone measures about 5.5 inches long and 1.75 inches across.  So far it is the heaviest cone of the bunch at 34 grams (1.199 ounces).  Norway Spruce trees have the capacity to reach a height of 185 feet (55 meters).

The giant of the bunch is the dried cone from the Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri).  This enormous cone measures approximately 11 inches long and six inches across and weighs 911 grams (32.135 ounces)!  That's just over two pounds - the cones can weigh as much as eleven pounds when fresh.  Coulter Pines are found in coastal mountain ranges of southern California.  I purchased this cone at a rock and mineral show in Michigan.

The final cone is the one from the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).  This cone measures about 2.25 inches long by 1.5 inches across.  It weighs 21 grams (0.741 ounces).  I collected this cone from beneath a Giant Sequoia tree at the Lake Bluff Audubon Sanctuary near Manistee, MI

So why am I showing this pipsqueak of a cone last?

Because the seeds from this cone have the potential to grow into the largest living organism on earth.  The largest Giant Sequoias have been measured at 311 feet tall (94.8 meters) with a trunk diameter of 56 feet (17 meters)!  They are also among the oldest living things on the planet, with some examples estimated to be over 3,500 years old!

The lesson is, don't judge a book by its cover or a tree by its cone.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Webs...

I was looking through photographs this morning search for a topic about which to write when I came across this photograph of a dew-covered web.

I have been thinking a lot lately about webs.  A spider's web is a collection of silky protein fibers produced by glands on the spider's body.  These fibers are spun by the spider into strands of silk of different diameters and strengths.  For their size, these fibers are among the strongest substances on the earth.  Some strands provide the infrastructure of the web, binding it in place with its surrounding.  Other fibers connect these strands together, enabling the spider to travel across its web or transmitting vibrations when a strand of the web is disturbed.  Still more fibers are covered with sticky secretions that ensnare the spider's prey. 

A spider's web only works because it is a collection of these varying types of silk, remove one type of silk and the web collapses.  It is no longer able to function.  Given time, a spider will construct a new web.  Over its lifetime, a spider may possibly construct dozens of similar webs, but each costs considerable energy to construct.  Often as the spider nears the end of its life cycle, the webs become more haphazard and less well constructed.  The spider lacks the energy that it had in its youth and the bonds that it creates are weaker.

But spider webs are not the only webs that exist in nature.  The webs that I have been thinking about are those that connect one species to another in a habitat and those that connect species to their environment  (soil, water, sunlight, etc.).  On July 27th, 1869 famed naturalist and conservationist John Muir (1838 - 1914) wrote in his journal, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe." 

These works are mostly true.  The bonds that Muir wrote about definitely exist, but they can be broken.  Many of the cords only exist now as memories, having been severed long ago. 

Given enough time nature develops new cords.  It weaves a new web, but the new web is different.  Some strands are missing and new ones may appear in new places.  The web is not necessarily better or worse. It is different

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Native Species Profile - Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)

Michigan is home to seventeen species of snakes.  Most of them are rarely encountered.  In the past two years, I have seen only six of the seventeen species in the wild (Common Garter Snake, Butler's Garter Snake, Northern Ribbon Snake, Northern Water Snake, Eastern Hognose Snake, and Brown Snake).  Of those six species, the two that I have seen most frequently are the Common Garter Snake and the Northern Ribbon Snake.

The third most frequent snake that I encounter is the Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi).  As the name implies, the Brown Snake is normally colored some shade of brown with some individuals being gray-brown or tan.  Other distinctive markings include a cream or pink belly and two rows of black dots on opposite sides of the back.  The color between the two rows of black markings is often lighter than on its sides.  Young Brown Snakes often have light gray or white ring around their necks.

Brown Snake - note brown color, row of black dots, and light color on back

Brown Snakes are typically generally small, with most individuals being between 9 and 15 inches long.  Rarely they will approach two feet in length.

A young Brown Snake resting inside my ballcap

Because of their small size, Brown Snakes concentrate on eating small animals.  Their typical diet includes worms, slugs, and snails.  They have also been known to eat grubs, beetles, and small salamanders.  I would expect that large individuals may also eat small frogs and other small vertebrates.

Brown Snake are small - normally measuring less than 15 inches.

Brown Snakes can be found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, wetlands, and suburban areas.  One way to attract Brown Snakes to a property is to provide them with boards or other suitable objects to hide under.  In Michigan they can be found throughout the Lower Peninsula and parts of the Upper Peninsula.  Overall they can be found throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains,  southern Canada, and northern Mexico.

Basic Information

Brown Snake
Storeria dekayi

Size:  9-23” long 

Habitat:  wetlands, fields, prairies, forests, agricultural lands, suburban areas, etc.
Eats:  worms, slugs, snails, grubs, small salamanders

Friday, December 11, 2015

Upcoming Event - Sylvan Solace Winter Solstice Walk (21 DEC 2015)

The Chippewa River at Sylvan Solace Preserve (27 JAN 2009)

Join me and Chippewa Watershed Conservancy (CWC) Executive Director Stan Lilley as we celebrate the Winter Solstice with an early morning walk.  This walk is scheduled for 7:45AM to 9:30AM at the CWC's Sylvan Solace Preserve.  The early time will allow us to celebrate the sunrise on the shortest day of the year.  Hopefully we will catch some of the preserve's other early risers out for a stroll or maybe see some that are late getting back to bed.

Sylvan Solace Preserve is located at 4561 W. Pickard Road, approximately 8 1/2 miles west of Mt. Pleasant, between Gilmore and Littlefield Roads.  For more information about this event and about the Sylvan Solace Preserve in general, please visit the CWC's website.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A line in the sand - Mission Creek (07 DEC 2015)

One final post about my recent trip to Mission Creek Woodland Park.

Mission Creek Park is divided into two distinct areas an upland area with sand soils and a lowland area with muck soils.  The lowland is part of the Chippewa River and Mission Creek floodplains.  The transition between the upland area and the floodplain is a steep bluff that is as much as 20 feet high.

While walking along Mission Creek, I noticed an area of the bluff that had collapsed exposing layers of soil on its face.

Fortunately, I had worn my rubber boots so I was able to wade across the river and examine the sand more closely.

The sloping layers of sand (middle of the picture) are an indication that the sand was being moved by wind or water when it was deposited.

One thing that I noticed right away was the presence of cross-bedding in the sand - it was not laid down in uniform horizontal layers.  Cross-bedding is evidence that when this sand was deposited it was being moved by either wind or water currents.  Cross-bedding is commonly found in dunes, ripples, and sand/gravel bars.  The direction of the bedding can be used to indicate the direction of the current.

The cross-bedding was interesting, but I found something else to be even more interesting.

That line of black specks in the center-left of this photo is a layer of charcoal.  A closer view can be seen below.

I dug back several inches into the bluff to see if this was indeed a layer or whether it was a single narrow line.  A single narrow line of charcoal could be caused by the roots of a tree burning deep below the surface.  This was not a line like that - the layer extended back into the bluff.  I did not attempt to dig very far back.  I really did not want to disturb the overlying layers of soil and cause further collapse. 

What could cause this layer? 

One possible explanation is that before the layers above were deposited, the area was lightly forested.  If the forest burned (creating the charcoal), surrounding soils could become destabilized by the lack of vegetation.  Winds then caused the soil to drift, burying the thin layer of charcoal under many feet of sand.  The cross-bedding in the overlying sand makes this theory seem likely to me.

Does anyone else have a better theory?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pictures from Mission Creek (07 DEC 2015)

On Monday I shared some photographs of a Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) that I discovered in the swamp at Mission Creek Woodland Park.  Here are a few other photographs that I took on the same walk through the woods.