Friday, January 29, 2016

The Space Shuttle Challenger - 30th Anniversary

Yesterday my space geek wife reminded me that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I originally posted most of what follows in 2014.  Here it is again with a few slight changes.

On January 28th, 1986 at 11:39:13 EST, the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff when an O-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters failed.  All seven crew members died in the accident.

I remember watching the accident at school.  I was in 5th Grade at the time.  I don't remember if we were supposed to watch the launch or if the teacher brought in a television after the accident happened.

Officially titled STS-51L, this mission of the Challenger was scheduled to be a special one.  STS-51L was carrying a teacher into space.  In 1984, NASA began the Teacher in Space Project (TISP) to inspire students and ignite interest in math, science, and space exploration.  More than 11,000 teachers applied for the program.  Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe was selected to be the first Teacher in Space (with Barbara Morgan as her backup).  McAuliffe (and Morgan) trained for 5 months for the mission.  Once the Challenger reached space, McAuliffe was scheduled to teach two lessons to students back on Earth.  On her return back to Earth, McAuliffe was supposed to go back to teaching in the classroom.

The destruction of the Challenger and the death of seven crew members was a big blow to NASA.  Because of the presence of a non-professional (McAuliffe) on the flight, Challenger had received more press attention than most previous Shuttle flights.  NASA cancelled flights of the remaining Space Shuttles for nearly three years to examine safety issues and determine the cause of the accident.  The Teacher in Space Project was officially replaced with the Educator Astronaut Project in the 1990s.  

Barbara Morgan would eventually make it to space.  She retired from teaching in 1998 and went to work at NASA as a full-time employee.  She flew as a mission specialist on STS-118 in August 2007.  Barbara Morgan retired from NASA in 2010.

For more information on STS-51L please visit the official NASA website.  Information on Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan can be found on their official NASA bios.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seven Years Ago

I have been spending way too much time in the office this winter.  I have so many programs scheduled that it is difficult to slip away for a couple of hours just to take photographs.  So instead of new photos, here are a few from seven years ago.

These pictures were taken on January 27th 2009 at the Sylvan Solace Preserve.  I remember the morning very well.  The temperature overnight had dropped down into the single digits, possibly even below zero.  The Chippewa River had not frozen over that winter.  The combination of the cold air and the relatively warm river cause dense fog/steam to rise from the river's surface and coat everything nearby with a thick hoarfrost.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

More Animal Sign

This morning I took a short wander around the field beside the Conservation District office with hope of finding some more animal sign to photograph.  Here is what I found...

When I arrived at the office this morning I noticed a domestic cat at the edge of the parking lot.  With several nearby homes this was not much of a surprise.  

The cats are drawn to the area by the presence of small mammals (voles and rabbits) and birds in the nearby field.  I decided to follow one set of cat tracks to see where they led.  The tracks meandered all over through the field.  At one point I did see where a cat had paused to examine a tunnel going down through the snow.  Freezing rain earlier this month transformed the surface of the snow into a thick layer of ice.  This ice protects the mice and voles that us the space below (called the subnivean zone) quite secure from predators above the snow - for more info on the subnivean zone check out "Next stop, the subnivean zone!" from February 2014

Nearby I noticed a single Black-capped Chickadee preening itself in an Autumn Olive bush.  Chickadees have several winter survival strategies including bulking up with fatty foods, puffing up, and even entering a state of torpor - see "Chickadees in Winter" (January 2013) for more information.

Many of the Autumn Olive shrubs in the field have been severely damaged by rabbits (and to a lesser extent, voles) over the past few winters.  This year is no different.  Because rabbits are almost exclusively vegetarian, their food options are limited during the winter months.  One reliable food source that is available is the tender buds, bark, and small branches of trees and shrubs.  Rabbits snip off the buds and branches and strip the bark with their sharp chisel-like incisors.  If enough bark is removed the tree or shrub can potentially die.  This can be a problem for people that own orchards or have recently planted small trees.  It's not a problem when the rabbits are munching on invasive species like the Autumn Olive.

Did I find anything more exciting?  No, not really.  I did see a vole scurry under the snow near a shrub, but was unable to get a picture.  I keep checking the snow in this field hoping to find a coyote track or even a deer track, but so far I have been disappointed.  That's really okay.  I got to get outside and away from my desk for a few minutes and was able to interact with nature.  It gave me a slight recharge that I needed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hall's Lake Hike Highlights (23 January 2016)

On Saturday (23 Jan), I led a walk for the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy (CWC) at their Neely and Kabana Preserves in western Isabella County.  The Neely Preserve is part of a larger parcel known as the Hall's Lake Natural Area. 
Our walk focused on animal sign.  When most people think of animal sign they think about tracks, but tracks are only a small part of the picture.  We looked at tracks, but we also searched for other things such as animal homes, signs of feeding, food caches, and scat. 

Looking for animal sign at Hall's Lake Natural Area

I have been to the Hall's Lake Natural Area several times in the past, but never to areas that we visited on Saturday.  Because I had never visited these sites, I had not expectations about what to expect.  Much of the two preserves are covered by a mature mixed conifer-hardwood forest.  Several inches of snow covered the ground, including a dusting about 36-48 hours prior to our walk.

I was actually surprised, by the lack of sign from several species.  There were very few tracks from White-tailed Deer, no deer scat, and no evidence of recent feeding.  Rabbit tracks were only found in the the area immediately adjacent to the lake in any area of swamp.  We also did not see or hear a single bird during our almost two hour walk.  In fact, I didn't see a single live animal of any species while I was there.

So what did we find?

There was lots of evidence to indicate that squirrels live in the preserve.  We saw squirrel tracks heading from tree to tree in most of the preserve.  There were also places where the squirrels had dug through the snow to search for cached (hidden) acorns.  Most squirrels do a really poor job of remembering where they have cached acorns and other nuts.  Instead they rely on their sense of smell to locate food hidden under the snow.  This means that they do not recover all of the things that they have buried.  Many of those nuts (and other seeds) will germinate during the following year.  So even though the squirrel may not benefit from everything that they have hidden, they are helping to reseed the forest.

Unfortunately, squirrel tracks are not all that exciting.  Neither were the hundred of mouse tracks that we saw throughout the forest.  While these tracks are interesting and give an insight into the small prey species found throughout the forest, they are not something that gets my heart pumping.

This, however, does.

That is a pile of coyote scat.  It was full of hair and seeds, indicating that the coyote that left this in the middle of the trail was eating a diverse omnivorous diet.

Why was the pile of scat in the middle of the trail?  Like all canines, coyotes frequently mark their territory.  There was evidence that someone had recently walked down that trail with a domestic dog.  The coyote left that scat in the trail to cover over the dog's scent and assert its dominance.

Scat was not the only coyote sign that we found.  We found several sets of tracks including this set on the ice covering the outlet to the lake.

Coyote tracks on the ice

The coyote skirted around several area of thin ice

Following tracks onto the ice - make sure the ice is solid before proceeding

For me the other highlight of the walk was a visit to an active porcupine den tree.  CWC Executive Director Stan Lilley led the group to this site.  Unfortunately, the porcupine crawled up inside its den as the group approached so we did not get to see it, but it left lots of evidence of its presence.  (This is not the not the first den tree that I have seen on a CWC property - in 2015, I found one at the Quigley Creek Natural Area.)

Examining porcupine scat under the den tree

The porcupine left a prominent trail from its den to its feeding area in some nearby pines

The porcupine den is in the hole in the left trunk

A pile of scat under the den tree

Even though I did not see a porcupine, it is always worth the time to take a walk in the woods.  It was especially enjoyable to share my knowledge of animal tracks and sign with other nature lovers.  One participant commented that it was going to make her walk to the end of the driveway to get the daily newspaper a lot more interesting.

For more photos from the walk please check out the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's website.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Native Pollinator Garden Update - Winn Elementary (22 January 2016)

Earlier this week I shared some photographs of the Native Pollinator Garden at the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum.  Today I visited Winn Elementary to do a couple of presentations and decided to take a few photographs of their Native Pollinator Garden.

Looking into the garden from the school entrance

The view from the far end of the garden.  The bee nesting box is waiting for residents.

This garden is certified as a Monarch Waystation and Native Plant Butterfly Garden

Butterflyweed is a Monarch host plant

Nodding Wild Onion

Bird Bath and Leopold bench

Sky Blue Aster
Purple Coneflowers provide winter food for birds

I am starting to really look forward to spring.  I am excited to see what surprises will happen in the gardens this year!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Another Day, Another Duck

My personal laptop is acting up on me.  I wanted to write a long interesting post last night, but the wireless antenna decided to stop working. 

So instead, here is another photograph from the past.  This photograph was taken on June 12th 2009 at Mill Pond Park in Mt. Pleasant.  This image shows a pair of Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) on the tip of a small island in the Chippewa River.  I realize that this is not a "glamour shot" of these ducks but the majority of my photographs aren't.  However it serves a useful purpose - this image shows the differing appearances of the drake or male duck (left) and the hen or female (right). 

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) along the Chippewa River - 12 JUN 2009

Species that have an obvious difference between the male and female are exhibiting a property known as sexual dimorphism.  In birds this property is often expressed as a difference in coloration.  Most birds that are sexually dimorphic will have males with bright plumage and females with dull feathers.  Bright colors on a male bird will indicate that he is healthy and a suitable mate; the drab colors of the female are useful camouflage when she is most vulnerable, sitting on the nest incubating her eggs.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Native Pollinator Garden Update - A Garden in Winter

This morning I stopped at the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum to check on the state of their Native Pollinator Garden.  This garden was planted in 2013 and is currently experiencing its second winter.

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum (20 JAN 2015)

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum (20 JAN 2015)

To many gardeners this winter garden might look sloppy or messy.  Common advice is to trim perennial plants back to the ground before the onset of winter, with the possible exception of grasses which are often left to leave a little pop of color and structure to the winter garden.

I prefer to leave gardens as is until spring.  The seedheads that are left in the garden provide food for birds.  The seeds that the birds do not consume have the potential to grow another plant if they drop to the ground and germinate.  Many of the stems and bunches of grass are also used an hibernacula by insects.  A hibernaculum (hibernacula is the plural form) is a place where an animal hibernates - it is has its roots in the Latin word hibernus which mean "wintry" or "of winter".  If the stems and seedheads had been removed,  many of the insects that call the garden home would have been removed with them.

Stiff Goldenrod seedheads

Little Bluestem Grass

Sand Coreopsis

Common Milkweed

Skyblue Aster (?)

Rattlesnake Master
So even though the garden may not be as beautiful now as it is during the summer, leaving the plants like this for the winter is beneficial to the long-term health of the garden.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Surrounded - A duck in winter

Just a photo for the day.

This image of a female Bufflehead duck (Bucephala albeola) floating in an open patch of water on the Chippewa River was taken seven years ago (tomorrow) at Chipp-A-Waters Park.

Female Bufflehead on the Chippewa River (20 JAN 2009)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sublimation and Advection

This morning much of Mid-Michigan was covered with fog.  The fog was caused by warm air moving over the snow covered ground.  The warm air causes moisture some of the snow to turn directly into a vapor (skipping the liquid stage).  This process is know as sublimation.  When the air is completely saturated, meaning it can hold no more vapor, the water begins to condense or turn into liquid droplets (fog).  This type of fog is known as advection fog.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In the Winter Woods

The following photographs were taken earlier today at Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant.

Chippewa River from near the canoe landing

Snow on burdock

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Adaptations - Aggressive Mimicry

Back in 2013, I wrote a post titled  "Mom! The Viceroy won't stop copying me!" about how animals use mimicry to deter predators.

In that post, I wrote about two forms of mimicry known as Batesian mimicry and Mullerian mimicry.  Batesian mimicry is a form of mimicry in which a harmless species copies the warning signs of a harmful species to scare away predators.  Mullerian mimicry is a type of mimicry in which two distasteful, poisonous, or otherwise harmful species have evolved to resemble each other - sharing the warning signs that keep predators away.

Recently, while searching through old photos I found an example of a third type of mimicry.

Bee Hunter - a type of robber fly

This is not a bee.  It's a type of fly known as a robber fly.  At first glance, this seems to be a clear cut case of Batesian mimicry.  By evolving with the colors of a bee, this fly is afforded protection from any potential predators without needing to have a stinger of its own.  This is a very common (and sensible) survival strategy

Bee Hunters exhibit aggressive mimicry - they look like their prey to fool them

However, this species in not exhibiting pure Batesian mimicry.  It does get some protection benefits from its yellow-and-black coloring, but in this species those colors serve a more sinister purpose.  This is one of several species of robber flies known as a Bee Hunter.  The Bee Hunter uses a form of mimicry known as aggressive mimicry.

Bee Hunter (closeup) - note the spines on the legs used for grasping prey and the proboscis used to such fluids from prey

Aggressive mimicry is a type of mimicry used by predators to appear harmless to their prey.  In this case, the Bee Hunter is a predator that preys on pollinators such as bees and wasps.  By resembling a bumblebee, the Bee Hunter appears to these insects as another harmless pollinator and is able to ambush them with less effort.  It grasps them with its long front legs - spine on the legs help immobilize their prey.  The Bee Hunter is covered with long stiff hairs that further help protect it from struggling prey.  One a prey is captured, the Bee Hunter uses is stiff proboscis to impale the unfortunate victim and suck out its insides.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Surprise! It's a woodpecker! A huge woodpecker!

Yesterday while I was on our enclosed back porch, working on materials for a school presentation,  I kept hearing a loud banging noise coming from somewhere outside.  To my surprise, when I looked out the window I saw a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)!  It was busy prying at the thick bark of a Honey Locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos) only about eight feet from our back door.  I took a few blurry photos through the window glass and then cracked open the door to take several more - this was the best photo of the bunch.

This is the first time I have ever seen a Pileated Woodpecker near our house in Alma.  This individual was a female - identifiable by the gray forehead and black stripe from the corner of the beak (moustache).  On male Pileated Woodpeckers the moustache and the entire crest (including the forehead) are red.

The woodpecker disappeared around the opposite side of the tree after realizing it was being watched, but it remained in our yard for quite some time.  It only flew away 15-20 minutes later when I had to go out the back door

This is actually the closest I have ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker, but I have better photos from an encounter in March 2013.  That woodpecker let me photograph it from about a dozen feet for more than 10 minutes and remained hard at work digging ants out of a tree even as I walked away.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Upcoming Event - Winter Animal Signs (23 JAN 2016)

Pointing out shrew tracks during a January 2015 walk at the CWC's Sylvan Solace Preserve

Join me on Saturday January 23rd at 10:00AM at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Hall's Lake Natural Area for a winter walk.  The walk will begin at the Neely Preserve at the corner of Broomfield Rd. and Old State Rd.

This walk will focus on locating and identifying signs left by the preserve's resident animals.  If you want to learn more about animal track identification or how to "read" animal signs this is the event for you.

I have never explored the Hall's Lake Preserve during the winter months and have never visited the Neely Preserve portion so I don't know what surprises we shall find.  This should be an adventure for everyone!

Please call the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy at (989) 772-5777 to register for this event.  There is no cost to attend, but donations are always appreciated.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nativer Species Profile - Wood Turtle

Because I am writing this in January, I would have a very difficult time locating one of my favorite animals - the Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta).  If I were to find one now, it would be somewhere underwater either buried in the mud or wedged under a rock or log.  There it hibernates motionless for several months, living on stored resources and absorbing oxygen from the water.  It probably disappeared under the water sometime in October and won't appear again until late April or May.

Wood Turtle (June 2008)

The Wood Turtle is one of ten species of turtle that can be found in Michigan.  Six of the species are considered to have stable populations (Map Turtle, Musk Turtle, Painted Turtle, Spiny Softshell Turtle, Red-ear Slider, and Snapping Turtle), one is Threatened (Spotted Turtle), and three are listed as Special Concern.  The Wood Turtle falls in this last category along with the Eastern Box Turtle and Blanding's Turtle.  This status means that the Wood Turtle has no legal protections under the Michigan Endangered Species Act.  Fortunately it is protected under a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director's Order that prohibits killing, taking, possessing, selling or buying them from the wild.

The Wood Turtle is a fairly small turtle, growing from 5 to 10 inches long as an adult.  Their upper shell (carapace) is tan to dark brown in color, with well defined scutes (plates).  The scutes have a series of growth rings, much like a tree - contributing to its name.  In younger turtles, the growth rings can be used to determine age, but the rings are often worn away in older individuals.  Their lower shell (plastron) is usually a dark yellow with brown patches.  This color scheme is also found on the exposed skin of its head, legs, and tail - the upper surfaces are brown (with yellow or orange spots) and the lower surfaces are yellow or orange.

Wood Turtle - note the "sculptured" shell, dark upper surfaces, and yellow underparts

The Wood Turtle is partially named for its habitat preferences.  It is typically found in the floodplain forests of clear running streams and rivers with sand or gravel bottoms.  Unlike most aquatic turtles, the Wood Turtle is commonly away from water during the summer months.  They often disperse as much as 1/3 mile into forests to feed on the leaves of herbaceous and woody plants, berries, mushrooms, worms and other invertebrates.  When in the water it feeds on aquatic plants, invertebrates, and rarely on dead animals. 

Wood Turtles commonly feed away from water during the summer months
Another habitat requirement is sandy soil for nesting.  Nesting typically takes place in June.  Female Wood Turtles excavate a shallow nesting cavity and deposits up to 18 eggs.  Hatchling turtles may emerge in August or September, or they may remain in the nest until the following spring.

A female Wood Turtle laying eggs on a sandbar in Mt. Pleasant
In Michigan, Wood Turtles are only found in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula and across the Upper Peninsula.  Overall their range extends from from Minnesota and northern Iowa in the west to the Atlantic coastline from New Brunswick and Quebec in the north to Virginia in the south.  Isabella County is near the southern edge of their range in Michigan.  There seems to be healthy population of adults in the county, but I have rarely encountered a young Wood Turtle in the wild.

Basic Information

Wood Turtle 
Glyptemys insculpta

Size:  5-10” long

Habitat:  rivers and streams with woodland floodplains

Eats:  plants, berries, mushrooms, earthworms, slugs, aquatic invertebrates, carrion (rarely)