Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Visit to Butterflies in Bloom 2016

Yesterday (30 March) we went to the 2016 Butterflies in Bloom exhibit in Midland.  This exhibit is held in the conservatory at Dow Gardens and runs until April 17th.  The exhibit features hundreds of butterflies and moths.  Visitors are encouraged to interact with the butterflies - meaning it is okay to touch them.  This means that many of the butterflies look a little ragged because they have been handled by so many people.  They are also very skittish.  If they land within reach of a person (adult or child) they are often immediately harassed until they take flight again.  I understand the reasons behind allowing people to touch the butterflies, but I prefer facilities that have a hands-off approach because I think the butterflies act more naturally and probably live longer.

When we visited the exhibit, it was very busy.  This week is spring break for most local schools and I think there were well over 100 people crowded into the conservatory.  The number of people and the skittish behavior of the butterflies made it difficult to get good quality photographs.  I spent most of my time looking for butterflies that were out of reach of people and photographed them at a longer distance.

Here are just a few photographs from the exhibit.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A new bluebird trail in Mt. Pleasant

A bluebird nest box with the Ziibiwing Center in the background
Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the Ziibiwing Center to install a new bluebird trail.  A bluebird trail is simply a series of nesting boxes arranged in some sort of pattern.  This will be the fourth bluebird trail that I have installed.  The others are at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy, Winn Elementary, and the Morey Public School Academy.  I maintain the boxes at SCA, the other boxes are maintained by teachers at the schools.

Why install bluebird trail at the Ziibiwing Center?  First, the Ziibiwing Center is the host site for our annual International Migratory Bird Day Celebration and I thought this would be a great addition to this year's celebration.  (This year's Bird Day is scheduled for Saturday May 14th - more information will come soon.)  Second, the Ziibiwing Center is surrounded by open grassy fields - good habitat for bluebirds.  Finally,  I have worked with the Ziibiwing staff on a number of projects over the years and though this was a great way to say thank you for their assistance. 

I also want to say thanks to Heather Shaw (wildlife biologist for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe) for helping me install the boxes.  If you want to learn a little more about Heather and the work she does, check out this post from August 2015.

In total, we placed seven boxes around the perimeter of the Ziibiwing Center.  I plan on going back and adding at least one more box.  There is also the potential to add some boxes at the nearby Andahwod senior center.  While putting up the boxes, we were able to watch hawks hunting in the surrounding fields and I think I saw an Eastern Meadowlark at one point.  I expect both Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will find these nesting boxes and make use of them in the upcoming years.

For plans to build a bluebird nesting box of your own, look here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Boxes for owls, in trees

Last month (February 2016), I built several nesting boxes for different sized birds.  These included a box intended for Eastern Screech Owls and another intended for Barred Owls.  I gave the two boxes to my parents to put up on their property near Laingsburg.  On Sunday (27 March), I was finally able to see where they placed the boxes.

My parents own about 15 acres of land.  More than half of this land is located in the floodplain for the Looking Glass River.  The rest of their property is above the flood plain and is composed mostly of clay soils.  This property was formerly owned by my maternal grandparents and was once operated as a small farm.

Since my parents purchased the property they have been slowly planting trees to reforest much of the land.  This task has been complicated by the fact that many of their trees were ash trees and have been killed off by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle.  As a consequence, there has been increased urgency for the past several years.

Many of the first trees planted on the property were a combination of pine and spruce species.  Some of these trees are now more than 30 feet tall and provide a dense overhead cover.

A stand of twenty year old pines

Over the past two years, they have found several dozen owl pellets under these trees.  This seemed like a good location to place one of the two owl nesting boxes.

The screech owl nesting box is located in the pine tree just left of center

A closer view of the nesting box.

This box has already been occupied, but not by owls.  It seems that a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) has taken up residence in this box.

The other nesting box is placed in one of the largest trees on the property.

Placed nearly twenty feet up in a large oak tree, this box overlooks an area of mixed hardwood swamp.  This is exactly the place that I envisioned when I made this nesting box.  It seems like the right place to find a Barred Owl - the only drawback being that there may not be enough mature trees in the area.  I guess only time will tell.

I didn't see any owls, but I did manage to see something just as wild.  While walking along the edge of the flooded marsh, I surprised a large Mink (Neovison vison).  The mink quickly began to swim away and I was able to only get a couple of pictures as it swam away.  Even though it was only a brief sighting, it's always exciting to see a mink.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ice in trees (25 March 2016)

My original plan for today was to go do some "spring cleaning" at several native pollinator gardens.  The snow and ice of the last few days ruined that plan for me. 

Instead, the ice and today's clear skies offered up a photography opportunity.  These photos were all taken in the area around the conservation district office this afternoon.  As the sun warms the branches, the ice is quickly dropping off.

Despite this weather setback, Spring is here to stay.  While taking these photos, I could hear Western Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris triseriata triseriata) calling from a nearby wetland.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Winter Storm Pictures (23-24 March 2016)

In the past 24 hours, Mid-Michigan has been hit by a winter storm that dumped as much as 5 inches of snow and half an inch of ice on the region.  All local schools closed for the day and many automobile accidents have been reported.  As ice-covered branches begin to fall, several areas have lost power.

I finally got out of the house this afternoon, in a steady rain, to take a few pictures in the park just down the street from my house in Alma.

Every tree is covered by a layer of ice.

Smaller plants such as this burdock are also covered.

Despite the weather, wildlife has been active.  I found two sets of deer tracks near the river

Man-made objects are not immune to the ice.


Looking back toward home, I could see every tree glistening with the icy coating.  A few branches have begun to come down under the extra weight.

Besides deer, other wildlife had been around.  I found tracks from squirrels, small songbirds, and these tracks from a Canada Goose.

This park is one of several in Alma that can be found along the Pine River.  The city's Riverwalk Trail connects several of these parks.  A pedestrian bridge connects the Euclid Ball Fields to the trail.  Crossing over the Pine River I found a pair of geese and about a half-dozen Mallard Ducks along the trail.  The geese slipped into the river before I could get close, but the ducks let me get close enough to take several pictures before flying the short distance to the river.

By this time, rainwater had soaked through my gloves and my camera was getting wet so I decided to call it a day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sunburst and Lighthouse - A Photo from Northeast Michigan

Just a photograph for today. 

This picture of the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse was taken in 2009.  Old Presque Isle Light is located in Presque Isle Township in Presque Isle County.  Presque Isle County is located along the northern Lake Huron shoreline of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.  This light was originally constructed in 1840.  It was replaced in 1870 by the New Presque Isle Lighthouse. 

The words presque isle originally come from the French language and translate to "almost an island".  They are used to describe a peninsula that is connected to the mainland by a very narrow neck of land and is therefore "almost an island".  Presque Isle is one of many French place names in Michigan.  For approximately 150 years, Michigan was part of New France (Nouvelle-France).  Although Michigan was lightly settled by the French, it very important for control of the Great Lakes fur trade and fur trading posts/forts were established at strategic locations such as Detroit, Sault Sainte Marie, and the Straits of Mackinac.  Although the French ceded control of Michigan (and the rest of Nouvelle-France) to Great Britain in the 1760s, many of the place names have passed down to us today.

To learn more about these lighthouses visit the Presque Isle Township Museum Society website.

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse (July 2009)


Monday, March 21, 2016

Vernal Equinox 2016

Early Spring iris blooms in my garden (16 March 2016)

Yesterday at 12:30 AM (EST), Spring officially began for the Northern Hemisphere.  The date of the switch from Winter to Spring is known as the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.  On this date, the sun crosses over the celestial equator and begins to strike more directly on the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere.

If you were to rise each morning and observe the location of the sunrise from the exact same spot, you would find that the sunrise takes place in a slightly different location from one day to the next.  On the first day of Winter the sun would appear to rise far south of due east.

As winter progresses, the sun's position moves northward along the horizon a little bit each morning.  It will continue to move northward until the first day of Summer.  At that point each sunrise will move south along the horizon until the first day of Winter arrives again.  On the first day of Spring, the sun rises midway between these northern (Summer) and southern (Winter) maximums - the sun also rises at the midpoint on the first day of Fall (Autumnal Equinox).  Sunsets follow a similar pattern in the western sky. 

This shifting of the sunrise (and sunset) is due to the fact that the earth's axis is not directly perpendicular to the plane of its orbit.  If the earth's axis were perpendicular to the plane of its orbit, the sun would rise and set in the same location each day.  Instead the earth's axis is tilted approximately 23.5 degrees from the vertical - this is why globes are tilted.  For part of the year the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (Spring and Summer) and for part of the year the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun (Fall and Winter).  Conversely, while the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing Summer the Southern Hemisphere is experiencing Winter; while the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing Winter the Southern Hemisphere is experiencing Summer.

Not only are the locations of the sunrise and sunset shifting, but the amount of daylight and darkness is also shifting.  On days when the position of the sun moves further north the amount of daylight grows slightly longer.  On days when the sunrise shifts southward the amount of daylight decreases slightly.

There are only two dates on which neither the Northern nor Southern Hemisphere is tilted more toward the sun.  On the equinoxes, both the poles line up with the direction of the earth's orbit and both hemispheres receive approximately equal amounts of daylight and darkness.

We are expecting snow later this week, but it officially Spring.  Get out there and enjoy it!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Snakes - A St. Patrick's Day Tradition

It's time for my St. Patrick's Day tradition - sharing a photo of snakes.

A Northern Water Snake training for the future invasion of Ireland.

Legends says that Ireland has no snakes because St. Patrick chased them off of the island.  The story is that St. Patrick was involved in the middle of a forty day fast when he was attacked by snakes.  This angered Patrick so greatly that he chased the snakes into the sea and banished them from the island forever.  To this day, Ireland has no native population of snakes.

The truth is that there were never any snakes on Ireland for St. Patrick to chase away.  Ireland has been covered with glaciers during more than one ice age.  During the last glacial maximum, which occurred about 11 thousand years ago, three-quarters of Ireland was buried under a thick layer of ice.  The remainder of the island was too cold and inhospitable to support snakes and most other species of wildlife.

When the glaciers retreated, Ireland was temporarily connected to Great Britain and the rest of Europe by a land bridge.  This connection allowed some species to repopulate Ireland, but snakes did not make it across before the connection was severed by rising sea levels.  This isolation is the true reason for Ireland's lack of snakes, not an angry fifth century saint.

Michigan was affected by the same glacial periods as Ireland.  It also was scoured clean by a thick layer of ice.  However, Michigan remains attached to the rest of North America and snakes have repopulated both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in the past 11,000 years.  A total of seventeen snake species currently call the state home.  I am glad that they are here.  They play an important role in the ecosystem as both predators and prey.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Upcoming Event - Bluebird Nest Box Build (Saturday 19 March 2016)

This Saturday (19 March 2016) at 9:30AM, members of the Chippewa Valley Audubon Club will be building nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds (and other small cavity-nesting birds) at the Mt. Pleasant Parks maintenance shop at Nelson Park in Mt. Pleasant.  We will be building the same type of box that I wrote about in my post from February 22nd.  Materials for these nest boxes  cost approximately $16.

I am the leader for this event.  If you live in the Mt. Pleasant area and are interested in building a nest box, please contact me before noon Friday (18 March) to reserve a place.  My email information can be in my profile to the right.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More Woodworking for Bees - A Bumblebee Nesting Box

I am an old hand at creating homes for native bees.  It is easy to make a nesting block that mason bees, leafcutter bees, and small carpenter bees will love.  Other bees are satisfied if you leave a bare patch of soil or hollow stems for them to nest in.  However, there is one group of native bees for whom I have never tried to create a nesting site - bumble bees.

Not any more.

My new bumblebee nesting box - waiting to be placed in its new home

On Sunday (13 MAR 2016), I built my first bumble bee nesting box.  Bumblebees have different nesting requirements than other native bees.  Like the European Honey Bee, most  bumblebee species form colonies with a queen and workers.  Unlike the honey bee, these colonies only last for a single year.

Each fall new queens are born.  They mate and then seek a place to hibernate.  In the spring those that survived winter emerge from hibernation and begin seeking a place to establish a colony.  She often searches out an abandoned rodent burrow or some other underground cavity.  Sometimes she will nest in a cavity in a tree or even simply at the base of a clump of grass.  Once she establishes her nest, she will continue to forage for nectar and pollen until she has enough sterile daughters (workers) to take over foraging.  Late in the summer she will lay eggs that will become fertile queens and drones (males).  After the young queens and drone have left the nest as adults, the colony's work is done and the remaining bees will eventually be killed by cold temperatures.

Many species of bumble bees have recently undergone severe population declines, with one or more species having actually gone extinct.  Part of the reason for this decline may be related to habitat loss as many former nesting sites in fencerows and field margins have been converted to crop production.

My gardens at home always seem to have a healthy population of bumblebees.  I am hoping that by adding a nesting box to the garden I will be able to attract a queen and be able to observe the growth of a colony.

The nesting box that I constructed is made from cedar lumber, left over from other projects.  The sides of the box are made from 1x8 lumber and the bottom and lid are pieces of 1x10 lumber.  The edges of the lid were ripped down to 2 inches from a piece of 1x10.  Overall the dimensions of the box are approximately 15 inches long x 9.25 inches wide x 9 inches tall.  The lid measures 16.75 inches long x 11 inches wide x 2 inches tall.  I used both wood screws and construction adhesive to assemble the box.

Front dimensions of nesting box

Lid dimensions

Outside length and width of the nesting box

The interior of the box is divided into two chambers by a scrap of 2x6.  A piece of 3/4 inch (inside diameter) PVC pipe provides access to the first chamber from the outside.  A 3/4 inch hole drilled into the 2x6 divider provides access to the second chamber.  Ideally, bees will nest in the inner (second) chamber.  This chamber should be lined with some sort of soft nesting material for the bees to begin nesting on (wood chips, cotton, straw, etc.).  I added some paper rodent bedding and will probably add some grass clippings as I do spring cleaning on the garden.  This second chamber also has several ventilation holes drilled near the top.

Inside dimensions of the nesting box

I plan on placing this box on the ground in a corner of the garden formed by an angle of the house.  This site is under the eaves so it is somewhat protected from rain.  The location is also shaded for much of the day with full sun only in the early morning - this is important so the box (and its occupants) do not overheat.

I am going to wait a coupe of weeks before I place this in the garden - there are not really any flowers as of yet.  In the meantime, I plan on taking it in to the office and displaying it with the hope that it will inspire others to think about native bees.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!  What is that you ask?

Pi is a number - expressed to the ten-thousandths place it read as 3.1415.  The circumference of any circle is its diameter times pi.  The are of any circle is its radius squared time pi.  So what does that have to do with today?

Today is the 14th of March.  Otherwise expressed as 3/14 or 3.14.   Just like the number pi. 

To learn more about Pi Day and how to celebrate the event please visit the official website of Pi Day.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Change in Seasons

An early morning Red-winged Blackbird (11 March 2016)
The calendar may say that Spring does not begin for another 9 days, but the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) beg to differ.  On Saturday (05 March) I began to hear them in the Lansing area.  By Wednesday (09 March) they were everywhere in Mid-Michigan.  To be more exact, male Red-winged Blackbirds are everywhere.  They are busy trying to impress each other and jockeying for territory.  It may take a couple of weeks to sort out which bird ends up with the best places in the landscape.  In the meantime, the females should find their way north to Mid-Michigan.  They will then set about choosing their own territories (within those of a male).  A dominant male bird may have several females living in his territory and will mate with each of them.  The females select a mate based on territory - a male with a good territory will more likely have good genes to pass on to his offspring.  So it doesn't bother them that their mate may have other mates. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Into the woods - A walk at Mission Creek (Part 2) and the Wildflowers of 2016 (#1)

This is the second half of a lengthy write-up about a walk that I took through Mission Creek Woodland Park yesterday (08 March 2016).  For Part 1, please look here.

With all of the recent snowmelt, Mission Creek is running full and is full of sediment.  It has the color and clarity of chocolate milk.

Mission Creek is full of muddy water

Once I crossed over Mission Creek and into the Cedar-dominated swamp, it was like stepping into an entirely different season.  South of the creek the snow is almost gone, north of the creek the ground is still covered.  This has to do with a couple of factors.  The canopy cover in this section of swamp is much denser than the Red Maple section, blocking more sunlight from hitting the ground and melting the snow.  Also, the creek itself is bounded by a very tall bank, when the sun is at a low angle in the sky (such as during the winter months) it can't reach some sections of the cedar swamp at all.

This short stream originated from a series of hillside seeps

Instead of run-off from melting snow, the northern edge of the park is full of running water from  seeps where groundwater flows out of the ground and drains into Mission Creek.  This constantly running water means that much of the ground here never freezes solid, unlike other locations in the park.

This section of Mission Creek is my favorite place in any of Mt. Pleasant's parks.  It is such a different habitat compared to the other parks.  Cedar swamps are rare in this part of Michigan so this is like a small piece of northern Michigan dropped into the local habitat.

The trail runs through a cedar swamp along the edge of Mission Creek

Many years ago, when I worked for the Mt. Pleasant Parks Department, I hauled a bunch of lumber down along the Mission Creek and built two sections of boardwalk over very wet and eroded areas.  One of the sections was just laid as a tread atop sections of log on the floor of the swamp.  The other section of boardwalk was more substantially built up.  The log section has begun to decay because it was placed right atop wet soil - the higher section is still standing through a grove of cedars.  It's doesn't seem like much, but it has kept this small spot from suffering further erosion due to foot traffic.

A short boardwalk along Mission Creek

Although the trail through the park is fine, I always discover more when I move off the trail.  Even though I have spent dozens (maybe even hundreds) of hours in this park.  I often discover new things.  Yesterday I found an interesting old cedar stump.  The stump itself is not that interesting, the area was logged long ago and there are larger stumps hiding in the woods.  What was really cool about this stump was the pair of trees growing from the top of it.

Sometime in the past, a pair of seeds landed on this stump and germinated.  One of the seeds came from a Northern White Cedar, the other belonged to a Yellow Birch.  Seeds often germinate on top of old rotting stumps, but most do not survive.  Both of these trees have managed to survive.  As the stump decayed, the two trees began to outgrow their home.  They both reached down toward the ground with their roots, seeking additional water and nutrients.  Eventually, the stump will decay completely.  If the trees survive, they will be raised above the ground by their stilt-like roots.

The cedar has another twist to its story.  When it was a young tree, something bent it toward the ground - perhaps heavy snowcover or a fallen branch.  This caused the tree's trunk to curve downward, but the end of the trunk grew upwards.  The result was this S-shaped bend in the trunk

A Northern White Cedar (left) and Yellow Birch (right) growing from an old stump

I also found my first wildflower of the year!  Not surprisingly, Wildflower #1 of 2016 is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  I half-expected to find this plant.  It is not unusual to find Skunk Cabbage flower poking up through snow.  In 2013, I found my first Skunk Cabbage on almost exactly the same datemy first 2014 Skunk Cabbage was almost a month later.  I didn't find a lot of Skunk Cabbage yesterday, but I found enough to think that spring is on its way.  Many of these flowers are not yet fully mature.  However a few were open, exposing pollen to insect visitors.

Most of the Skunk Cabbage that I found was growing in flowing water

This Skunk Cabbage flower is beginning to open for business

Skunk Cabbage - Inside the flower on the left you can just see the pollen that shows this flower is open for business.

Although I photographed a few more things before leaving the park, this seems like an appropriate way toe end this post.  Now, I will probably have to wait several more weeks before I find my second wildflower species of the year.  I look forward to it...