Monday, February 29, 2016

Happy Leap Day!

Happy Leap Day!

What is Leap Day?

February 29th is Leap Day.

But, doesn't February only have 28 days?

Most of the time, but every four years an extra day is added to the calendar.


It has do do with the difference between a calendar year and a solar year.

I know that a calendar year has 365 days.  What is a solar year?

A solar year is the time it takes for the earth to make one complete orbit around the sun.  This is not exactly 365 days.  In fact it is close to 365 and 1/4 days.  Because it is difficult to add 1/4 day to the calendar, every four years an extra day (February 29th) is added to the calendar year to make the two equal out.

What would happen if we didn't add the extra day?

Over time the calendar would start to shift and seasons would no longer begin on the same dates.  The would become later and later each year.  Could you imagine Spring not beginning until June or July?  If the calendar were not adjusted, this would eventually happen.

So every four years we can expect the calendar to have an extra day?

Yes and no.  A solar year is not exactly 365 and 1/4 days.  It is actually 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 45 seconds.  This means that when a leap day is added to the calendar, it is actually adding back too much time.  Over the course of 400 years this adds up to about 3 days too many.

So what happens to the extra days?

They get taken away.  Every year that is divisible by 4 (like 2016) is a leap year, unless that date is also divided by 100.  Years that are divisible by 100 do not get a leap day added.

But, wait a minute! I remember the year 2000 and it had a leap day!

There is one other quirk to the system.  Because the addition of a leap year only adds up to 3 extra day over the course of 400 year, if the year is divisible by 400 it still gets a leap day added.  This means that the year 2000 had a leap day, as did the year 1600.  The year 2400 will also get one, but the years 2100, 2200, and 2300 will not.

So I guess it is important to look before you leap?

Very punny...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

After the storm (25 FEB 2016)

Yesterday I was thinking about spring.  Today it looks like this outside.  All of the local schools were closed so I stayed home today.  Time will tell if schools are open tomorrow - the city streets are mostly clear, but there are miles and miles of country roads to plow.

I paused during shoveling to take a few photographs.

It was difficult to judge, but it looked like we had about 8 inches of snow at our house in Alma.  Yesterday morning our yard was completely bare and a few plants were showing green leaves in the garden.  Now everything is buried under a new blanket.

One of the bee nesting structures with a frosty new cap

The snow was heavy enough that branches on our ornamental crabapple tree were drooping to the ground

The birdbath looked like some sort of bizarre white-capped mushroom

One of your Pine Siskins is very unafraid and continued to feed while I photographed it from less than 10 feet away

The sun trying to break through the clouds this morning.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Upcoming Event - Butterflies in Bloom 2016 (04 March - 17 APRIL)

Every year I look forward to the transition between winter and spring.  One event that helps me mark the transition is the annual Butterflies in Bloom exhibit in the conservatory at Dow Gardens.  This exhibit features thousands of butterflies and moths from around the world. 

Butterflies in Bloom begins next Friday March 4th and continues until Sunday April 17th.  The exhibit is open from 10:00AM to 4:00PM daily, with extended hours on Wednesday beginning March 16th.

Admission to Butterflies in Bloom is included with the admission cost to  Dow Gardens.  A daily admission costs $5.00 for adults, $1.00 for children ages 6-17, and and is free for children age 5 and under.  I recommend purchasing the annual pass at only $10.00!

If you go, be prepared for crowds (especially on weekends).  The butterflies are most active on warm sunny days, but they sit still for photographs best on overcast days. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Building a Bird Nesting Box

Yesterday afternoon I built a nesting box for small cavity-dwelling birds.  Over the past decade I have probably built several dozen of these boxes.  They have been placed in school habitats, given away, and donated as silent auction items.  I placed several on trees at our previous home and have one up on a tree near our back door.  These boxes have been used by Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Black-capped Chickadees, House Wrens, White-breasted Nuthatches, and unfortunately by House Sparrows.

I like this design because it is relatively easy to built.  It is constructed from a single 6 ft. piece of 1x6 rough-sawn cedar.  I can cut all of the required pieces from this one board and have a couple pieces left over.

Building one of these boxes requires very little in the way of tools.  I use a compound miter saw to cut the wood, but it can easily be done with a hand saw.  The other required tools and supplies are a tape measure or ruler, a hammer, nails ( I use 6D and 4D sinkers), a #3 Phillips screwdriver, one #10 brass wood screw, and a drill with a 1 1/2 inch spade bit.  I also use wood glue or construction adhesive to help attach the boards and a pair of bar clamps to hold things together during assembly.  The glue and clamps are not required, but do make things easier.

The first step is to cut all of the piece to length.  This nesting box requires one 14 inch piece (back), four 9 inch pieces (sides, front, and top), one 3 3/4 inch piece (bottom).

All of the pieces for one nest box can be cut from one 1 x 6 x 6 ft piece of cedar - one 4 x 2 3/4 piece (predator guard),      one 3 3/4 inch piece (bottom), four 9 inch pieces (sides, front, and top) and one 14 inch piece (back).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Stand Back!

Sometimes it is okay to touch fuzzy things.

Common mullein leaves are soft and fuzzy

Sometimes it is not okay.

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillars look soft and fuzzy but are not!

The Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) is covered with both long and short hairs.  Be careful of both.  The short hairs are barbed and will break off in your skin, causing your skin to itch.  The long hairs (sometimes called lashes) are hollow and connected to poison glands.  If you touch one of these, the hollow hairs will pierce your skin and introduce the poison into your body!  It quickly causes an itch burning sensation that is similar to sting of a nettle.  Some people can have severe reactions that may require a visit to their doctor.  The black and white color scheme is there to warm predators including humans to stay away.  This use of warning colors is known as aposematic coloration. 

If you accidentally (or intentionally) touch a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar,  you will quickly learn to associate aposematic coloration with danger or pain and you are less likely to make the same mistake again.

Stinging caterpillars!  Isn't nature cool?!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Nature Happens - Shopping for Lunch at the Lansing Mall

On Sunday (14 FEB) Shara and I stopped at the Lansing Mall to buy a few things and have lunch.  As we were driving along the outside of the mall we noticed a large flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) feeding on the ornamental crab apple fruits.  Then Shara looked into a spruce tree alongside our truck and noticed something staring out.

Cooper's Hawk (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Cooper's Hawk (Photo by Shara LeValley)

That's a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  The Cooper's Hawk belongs to a family of raptors known as accipiters.  Accipiters typically live in forested areas and have short wings and long tails that allow them to maneuver swiftly through trees.  Many accipters prey on other birds.  This Cooper's Hawk was intently watching the flock of robins.

When we exited the mall about two hours later Shara noticed the Cooper's Hawk sitting on the ground.  It had successfully made a kill and was feasting on a robin.  While people wandered the mall, "nature" was happening right outside.

Cooper's Hawk with kill (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Cooper's Hawk with kill (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Cooper's Hawk with kill (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Earlier that morning I had debated about whether to take my camera or not.  I should know by now that if i don't have my camera there is a good chance that I will end up regretting it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Backyard Bird Watching

I am currently home sick with a horrible head cold.  That doesn't mean that I am completely separated from all things natural.  The backyard is full of birds (and squirrels) gorging on sunflower seeds.  We have recently had a huge flock of mixed finches (American Goldfinches, House Finches, and Pine Siskins) attending to our feeders.  A few of them are shown in the pictures below, along with at least one Downy Woodpecker and a Fox Squirrel.

Friday, February 12, 2016

2016 Isabella County Hazardous Waste Collection and Tire Recycling: UPDATE

The Isabella Conservation District is hosting two dates for Household Hazardous Waste/Clean Sweep Collection and two dates for Tire Recycling in 2016.

Dates for Tire Recycling are Saturday May 21st and Saturday September 24thPlease note that the Fall tire collection date has changed from September 10th to September 24th.

Household Hazardous Waste/Clean Sweep Collection dates are Saturday May 14th and Saturday August 27th.

All collections run from 8:00AM to 12:00PM (Noon) and take place at the Isabella County Fairgrounds (500 N. Mission Rd, Mt. Pleasant).

Items that are accepted during collection are listed below.  For further questions please call the Isabella Conservation District at 989-772-5927 ext. 3 or visit our offices at 5979 E. Broadway, Mt. pleasant during normal business hours.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Upcoming Event - Learn About Timber Cruising (20 FEB 2016)


Join me next Saturday February 20th for an event at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Sylvan Solace Preserve. 

Learn a little about how foresters evaluate and inventory a forest stand.  Learn how to use tools such as a tape or Biltmore stick to measure Diameter at breast height (Dbh), estimate the number of marketable logs (and height) in a tree, and perform a fixed-radius plot inventory to estimate the number of trees in a forest.

If you are interested in attending this event, please register with the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Native Species Profile - Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle - a bee/wasp mimic, note the yellow and black striped abdomen

In late summer and early fall it is common to see dozens of bees gathered on goldenrods, asters, and other prairie plants.  If you look closely you might discover that not all of the "bees" are really bees.  Many are mimics that use the aposematic coloring (warning colors) of bees or wasps to deter predators from attacking them.  One of the more common bee mimics that can be found in Mid-Michigan is the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus).

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle - note the dark spots on each elytra and the pronotum

The Goldenrod Soldier Beetle is a mid-sized beetle for Mid-Michigan, measuring about 1/2 inch in length.  It is yellow and black in color with prominent black stripes on its abdomen, a black spot on each elytra (leathery outer wings), and a black spot on the pronotum (plate covering the upper surface of its thorax).

This species is typically found in mid- to late summer and fall.  Adults are usually found on goldenrods and other flowering plants where they feed on nectar and pollen.  Look for them them along roadsides, in parks, old fields, meadows, and prairies.

Basic Information

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle
Chauliognathus pensylvanicus
Size: up to 1/2" long

Habitat:  prairies, meadows, old fields, roadsides, parks
Eats:  adults eat nectar and pollen; larvae eat insect eggs and larvae

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More Mosquito Bites...

Last night (08 February 2016), the Mt. Pleasant City Commission met for their regularly scheduled meeting.  One of their agenda items included a proposal to cancel a contract with APM Mosquito Control for the summer of 2016.  This contract was approved during a Commission meeting in November and has been under scrutiny by the public since that time.  Several newly elected commission member requested that the issue be brought back to the table so the item was placed on the agenda for last night's meeting.

I think the commission was surprised by the amount of public input on this subject.  The commission received several written communications on the subject, mostly against spraying.  During the public comment period of the meeting, approximately a dozen people opted to speak on the subject.  I once again spoke about the potential long term ecological effects of long-term nuisance mosquito control.  I was quickly followed by a representative of APM Mosquito Control who quickly tried to refute several of the statistics that I cited.

Many city residents urged the commission to make an informed decision based on need for the proposed mosquito control.  I even stated that if there was a public health issue that I would support control measures, but because mosquitoes are currently only a nuisance I could not support the measures based on the science.

In the end, the commission voted unanimously to cancel the proposed mosquito control contract for 2016, but wants to work with APM to conduct surveillance of mosquito populations to establish a baseline of population data and determine if there is a significant disease problem in Mt Pleasant's mosquitoes..  I think this is a sensible approach that the commission should have taken from the beginning and I applaud their willingness to listen to both public opinion and scientific data.

To read more about this subject please check out this post from February 3rd.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Frogcicles, anyone?

Yesterday (07 February 2016) the temperature in Mt. Pleasant reached a high of 46 degrees Fahrenheit.  A blast of Arctic air is going to hit Mid-Michigan over the next few days, dropping temperatures down to near zero degrees by the end of the week.  This drop in temperature will make survival more difficult for many small animals.  The layer of snow that has been insulating the ground has all but melted away.  Animals such as voles, mice, and shrews are exposed to the elements as they forage.  These species all have high metabolic rates, they need to consume enormous numbers of calories for their size just to counteract the effects of cold.  Exposure for many of these species can quickly lead to hypothermia if they are unable to find enough food to maintain their metabolic rate.

Other small animals are less bothered by the change in temperature.  Some of these species spend the winter months securely hibernating below ground.  Mammals that hibernate reduce their metabolic rate and slowly burn through fat that they accumulated during the summer and fall months.  Even though their body temperature drops it remains above freezing.  For reptiles and amphibians this is not an option.  These species are considered ectothermic - meaning that they rely on the external temperature to regulate their internal temperature.  If the temperature of their surrounding is high so is their internal body temperature; if their surrounding are cold so is their internal temperature.

So how to species such as this survive the lows of winter?  If the temperature of their surroundings drops below freezing so does their body temperature.  This exposes their cells and organs to the dangers of freezing solid.  When a cell freezes, ice crystals form in the intercellular fluid - this can cause the walls of the cell to break, destroying the cell.  If enough cells are destroyed the animal dies.  (The same cellular freezing causes plants to die.)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mid-day at Mill Pond Park

On Wednesday (03 FEB) I had several programs scheduled at Ganiard Elementary in Mt. Pleasant.  I had one program in the morning and then two more in the afternoon with an hour-long gap at mid-day.  This gap was too short to come back to the office so I decided to spend the time at nearby Mill Pond Park.

I parked at the Leaton Street parking area.  This parking area is near the site of the former dam that gave the park its name.  Although the Mill Pond has not existed for many years, the old dam was only removed in 2002 and replaced with a series of weirs that step down the river and make it open to both fish and human navigation.

For nearly a decade I was a seasonal maintenance worker for the Mt. Pleasant Parks Department.  My main job for most of that time was to maintain the trail system in Mill Pond Park.  I am very familiar with what can be found throughout this park.

Because I didn't have a lot of time, I just decided to walk down a trail that allows access to the weirs along the west bank of the river.  I was not expecting to find much wildlife.  I really just wanted to get some photos of the river that had swollen from recent rains and snowmelt.

Walking from the parking lot to the river I passed over several well-defined sets of squirrel tracks in the snow.  Mt. Pleasant's parks are home to three species of squirrels: Red, Grey (including black morph), and Fox squirrels.  In the parking lot I watched a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) digging through the snow, so it's not a stretch to guess that these tracks probably belonged to a Fox Squirrel.

The river itself currently has the color and clarity of chocolate milk due to suspended particles of silt and clay.  The recent rains and melting snow have carried these particles from upland areas into the river.  The Chippewa River generally runs pretty clear unless there has been a recent storm.  Unfortunately clear does not mean clean.  Testing over several years has found unnaturally high levels of E. Coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria due to contamination from both animal waste and human septic systems.  This is especially true during the summer months when the bacteria can easily reproduce in the warm water.

Much of Mill Pond Park lies within the floodplain of the Chippewa River.  A large section of the park is covered by a cattail marsh.  Other areas are covered by a floodplain forest.  This section contains one of my favorite understory trees/shrubs - the American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia).  Right now the Bladdernut can be easily identified by its namesake fruits.

Dangling from the branches of the Bladdernut, I found several faded maple leaves twisting in the breeze.

Another nearby find was the dried stalks of a White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia).  This relative of the common Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is commonly found in shaded damp areas such as floodplain forests.

Mill Pond Park is home to a small herd of White-tailed Deer.  During the summer it is not unusual to see a doe and pair of fawns somewhere along the trail system.  This time I didn't see any deer but I did find their footprints in the snow.

Walking back to my truck, I decided to take a few more photographs of the river.  This bridge spans the former dam site.  One of the park's five weirs can be seen almost directly below the bridge.  Right now the water levels are so high that the rock used to construct the weirs is completely underwater.  During periods of low water, the rock is exposed and the water flows through a central spillway on each dam.

One final photo.  This shows a dead tree on a sandbar in the middle of the river.  Until the dam was removed from the river this tree stood on the shoreline.  Since the dam has been removed, floods have dug out a new channel between this tree and the now-current shoreline.  Several other trees have already been overtaken by the river.  This one will soon follow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Mosquito bites...

I try to stay out of politics.  My goal with this blog is to discuss nature and science, not to talk about politics, but every once in a while politics intrudes.  I just did a search of my archives and found that in the past I have written about politics only a couple of times on this blog.  In April 2013 (updated September 2013), I wrote about how a budget fight in the United States Congress resulted in the temporary limiting of access and services at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Also in 2013, I wrote about a proposal by the City of Mt. Pleasant to build a dog park at Mission Creek Woodland Park - the proposal passed and 2 acres of woods were cleared to create the dog park.

Recently local politics has again intruded into my life.

The subject this time?


A mosquito on a Tall Agrimony (Agrimonia gryposepala) plant

In November, the Mt. Pleasant City Commission hosted a public meeting to decide whether to enter into a contract for mosquito control in 2016.  I was asked by a concerned citizen to attend the meeting and discuss the environmental impact of mosquito spraying.  I did some research before the meeting and ended up addressing the commission during the public comment session.  Despite my concerns and the stated concerns of several city residents, the commission decided in a 4-3 vote to pursue a mosquito control contract for the upcoming year.

Now, a new city commission has been sworn in and the new commission wants to revisit the subject.  Since this was announced, I have been called by a representative of the mosquito control company that was awarded the city contract, asked to attend a meeting with the new mayor of Mt. Pleasant to discuss the situation, and visited at the office by members of the public.  I have also been quoted (and misquoted) in the newspaper several times.

I do not oppose mosquito control measures in all situations.  I just do not think that spraying for mosquitoes in Mt. Pleasant is currently warranted.  I also believe that the environmental impacts of mosquito control currently outweigh the benefits in Mt. Pleasant.  If situations change, I could change my mind.  That is the beauty of using science to make informed decisions.  I can change my opinion based on new evidence.  I want our local elected officials to use that kind of reasoning.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Giant Squirrel Prediction Time!

Happy Marmota monax Day!

Or you might know it better as Groundhog Day.  On Groundhog Day, communities across North America drag a sleepy Groundhog (Marmota monax) out of hibernation to see if it casts a shadow.  If the groundhog sees its shadow, this means that six more weeks of winter will follow; if it does not see its shadow, spring will supposedly come early.

No matter what the groundhogs "predict", winter is scheduled to end approximately 6 1/2 weeks from now on March 20th.

Monday, February 1, 2016

2016 Isabella Conservation District Spring Tree Order

It's that time of year again!  The Isabella Conservation District is now accepting orders for our Spring Tree Order.  Orders can be made by mail or in person at the Isabella Conservation District Office at 5979 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant.  Orders can also be placed over the phone at (989) 772-5927 ext. 3.

Payments can be made in cash, by check (to the Isabella Conservation District or ICD), or by credit card.  Payment is due at the time you order.

Orders are due no later than Friday April 8th.

UPDATE:  The Isabella Conservation District is no longer taking orders for our Spring 2016 Tree Sale.  However, limited quantities of some species may be available at our pickup on Friday April 22nd at the Isabella County Fairgrounds (500 N. Mission Rd, Mt. Pleasant).


What should be Michigan's Official State Insect?

If you know me personally or if you have read this blog for any amount of time you probably realize that I am a big fan of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

My wife and I collect caterpillars to raise to adulthood and then tag them as part of the Monarch Watch tagging program.

Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises

A tagged Monarch at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy (photo by Shara LeValley)

We participate in an annual Monarch Butterfly Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant.

At the 2011 Monarch Butterfly Celebration (photo by Shara LeValley)

I have even helped create five gardens that are certified as Monarch Waystations:  our home garden, Saginaw Chippewa Academy, Winn Elementary, Morey Public School Academy, and the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum.

Native Pollinator Garden at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy

Recently I learned of a movement to make the Monarch Butterfly the official insect of the State of Michigan.  Michigan is one of only three states without an official insect.

It may be a surprise, but I am opposed to this proposition.


There are seven other states that have the Monarch as their official insect or butterfly.  Although I love the Monarch and look forward to them every year, I would rather Michigan pick something unique.

I also think that if Michigan is to have an official insect that it should be something that resides in the state year round and not just for 4-5 months of the year.

What do I think should be the Official Insect of Michigan?

I would suggest the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens).  No state has the Common Eastern Bumblebee as its official insects - seventeen states have the European Honeybee (a non-native species) as their state insect.

Why would the Common Eastern Bumblebee make a suitable state insect?  For starters it is a year-round resident of the state.  Right now young bumblebee queens are hibernating, just waiting for spring to emerge and begin new colonies.  Second, the bumblebee is an incredible pollinator.  It is probably the number one pollinator of many of our native wildflower species.  It is also an important pollinator for many fruit and vegetable species that are grown in Michigan.  Finally, like the monarch butterfly, the bumblebee is suffering from a population decline, caused mainly by habitat loss.  Unfortunately the decline in many native bee species is not getting the same press coverage as the monarch.  If the monarch disappeared from the state it would be a horrible sad loss of a charismatic species, but if the bumblebee disappeared it would be catastrophic.

Common Eastern Bumblebee worker on an aster flower

What do you think?  I want to know.