Friday, April 29, 2016

Thank You Chippewa Watershed Conservancy

Last night during the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's annual banquet, I was surprised to be honored as their 2016 Robert (Bob) Ball Award winner. 

What is the Bob Ball Award? 

The following comes directly from the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy website:

The Robert (Bob) Ball Award was created in 1996 to honor someone who has made a significant contribution to the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy’s purpose of protecting natural habitat and open space. The late Bob Ball was one of the founders of the CWC. He dedicated a large part of his life to promoting awareness and access to nature.

It's hard to know what to say when you are surprised by something like this.  In an email that I sent this morning to CWC Executive Director Stan Lilley, I expressed that I was both honored and humbled.  Honored because I know and respect many of the previous winners of this award for all that they have done and continue to do in the name of conservation.  Humbled because I often feel that I could be doing so much more (not just for the CWC, but in general).

What's next?

I've got some ideas about what I want to do; I just need to put them forth..

Until then you can help the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy by helping them purchase the tallest point in Isabella County and turn it into their newest preserve.  To contribute please vist

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fallen Giant

Earlier this week, during a trip to Chipp-A-Waters Park, I discovered this giant Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) had broken off sometime during the winter.

Fallen Eastern Cottonwood at Chipp-A-Waters Park

This was not the biggest Cottonwood in the park, but probably in the top five.  Just how big was this tree?  It's hard to tell without adding something for scale.

Same tree - with 5ft 9inch human being for scale

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wildflowers of 2016 - #9 through #21

The wildflower season is rolling now.  Last Wednesday (20 April 2016) I had a few short minutes to sneak into the woods at Mill Pond Park.  In that time I was able to find two new species to add to my 2016 list.

Wildflowers of 2016 - #9 Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) was the first species that I found.  This species was not on my 2014 list.  I have seen it in several parks in Mt. Pleasant, but until now have not noticed the flowers.

A Spicebush growing in the floodplain at Mill Pond Park

Spicebush is a 5 to 15 foot tall shrub that commonly grows in floodplains and swamps.  In Michigan,  it can be found in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula and along the Lake Michigan shoreline.  This is the northern edge of its range.  Overall it can be found east of a line running from Illinois and Iowa southwest into Missouri, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas.

Spicebush - branches are covered with hundreds of small yellow or yellow-green flowers in spring

The flowers of Spicebush are yellow to yellow-green and are about 1/4 inch across.  Flowers are either male or female.  Later the female flowers will be replaced by bright red fruit.  The flowers, leaves, and branches all smell spicy when crushed. 

Spicebush - note yellow green flowers and dark bark

Wildflowers of 2016 - #10 Black Willow (Salix nigra)

While leaving the park I stopped to take photos of a Black Willow (Salix nigra).  This is my fourth species of tree and my second Salix species.

A tangle of Black Willow branches

Black Willow is another tree species that is dioecious - meaning individual trees are either male or female.  The tree that I photographed was a male, with yellow-green flowers arranged in elongated catkins.

Black Willow - male catkins

Throughout most of its range, Black Willow is considered an obligate wetland species.  This means that it is almost always found in wetlands.  It ranges across eastern North America, west to the edge of the Great Plains.

Black Willow commonly grows in low, wet habitats such as this floodplain forest

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Native Pollinator Garden Update (22 April 2016)

Last week I finally got around to cleaning out the pollinator gardens at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy, Morey Public School Academy, Winn Elementary, and the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum.

Because these gardens are filled primarily with plants that bloom late-spring through fall, there is not a lot going on in them right now.  Here are a few pictures.

Winn Elementary

Winn Elementary - looking south toward the school's main entrance

Winn Elementary - looking north into the garden

Like all of our gardens, the Winn garden is a certified Monarch Waystation

I found a surprise in the Winn garden - a pair of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) hiding in the leaf litter and other debris.  It's nice to see a new species using the garden, but this seemed to be an odd location for these frogs.

A wood frog hiding in the Winn garden

Morey Public School Academy

This is the first year that the plants in this garden have not been trimmed down in the fall.  This allows more of the seeds to fall within the garden, helping to fill in blank space.  I will be curious to see what pops up this summer.

Morey PSA - looking northeast into the garden

Morey PSA - this garden has a more formal design

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum

It's always interesting to see what kind of reaction I will get when I go to work on the garden at the Discovery Museum.  Their staff has changed repeatedly over the past few year, so while the people in the back (director, education coordinator, etc.) know me, many of the people in the front (play facilitators, etc.) do not.  When I show up with pruning shears, shovels, rakes, etc. and start doing things in the garden, I sometimes get a reaction.  Because of this, I try to do maintenance here when the museum is not open.

I am excited to see how this garden looks this year.  This will be the third full growing season (it was originally planted in the summer of 2013) for this garden and many plants are just now reaching their potential.

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum - looking west into the garden

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum - looking eastward toward the museum entrance

I didn't take any pictures of the Saginaw Chippewa Academy garden.  This is a major transition year for this garden.  The portable classroom that bordered this garden was removed this past fall/winter.  This will have two major effect.  First the garden is now exposed to day-long sun.  Previously the classroom blocked the sun starting in mid-afternoon.  Second, lots of water used to run off the classroom roof onto parts of the garden.  Overall this means that this garden should be much drier than in past years.  I don't know exactly what will happen, but I am excited to find out.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!

Now get up off your rear end and go outside.   Do something.  Plant a tree (extras from our tree sale are available today at the Isabella County Fairgrounds).  Pick up some trash.  Watch wildlife.  Build a home for animals - there are lots of examples here on this blog.  Go to a local park or preserve.  Go fishing.  Climb a tree.  Feed the birds (or squirrels).  Stop and smell the flowers and watch the bees.  Play. 

Just get outside.  Now.

Wildflowers of 2016 - #2 through #8

Sometime over the winter I decided that I wanted to repeat my Wildflower Big Year from 2014.  Having done this project once, I already know that it is going to take up a lot of my time and be a lot of work, but I still think it's fun.  Plus, it gets me outside.

I found my first wildflower of 2016 way back on 08 March.  It was really no surprise that Wildflower #1 was the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

And then I waited... for more than a month... as winter went through its final outbursts....

Finally, last week I found my second wildflower of the year.

Wildflowers of 2016 - #2 Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)  

My second wildflower of the year was the Pussy Willow (Salix discolor).  I found this last Thursday (14 APR) in Mill Pond Park.  This is the earliest willow species to bloom in Michigan.  It can be identified by the fuzzy immature catkins that look and feel like cat fur.  Interestingly, I found my first Pussy Willow flowers on the exact same date in 2014.

Pussy Willow catkins look and feel like cat fur (duh!)

The structure to the left of center is called a willow pine cone gall and is caused by a midge larvae

Warm weather over the weekend and at the beginning of this week gave a jump-start to the spring wildflower season.  It forced several species into bloom.  I found my next seven species at Chipp-A-Waters Park on Monday (17 APR 2016)

Wildflowers of 2016 - #3 Boxelder (Acer negundo

The first species for the day was my second tree species of the year - Boxelder (Acer negundo).  This species  is commonly found in wet areas such as floodplains, stream banks, and along the shores of wetlands,  Because Boxelder does not tolerate shade well, it is rarely found in thick woodlands.  Boxelder grows rapidly and often colonizes newly disturbed sites.

Boxelder is Michigan's only native Maple species (Acer genus) with compound leaves.  It is sometimes referred to as Ash-leaved Maple because its three to seven leaflets resemble those of Ash trees.

The picture below shows only the male flowers.  Boxelder trees are dioecious; meaning that trees are either male or female, but not both. 

Male flowers of Boxelder tree - dangling stamen allow the wind to carry away pollen

Wildflowers of 2016 - #4 Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia

My second species of the day was Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia).  I found this growing along a high bank of the Chippewa River in the exact same spot as I did two years ago.  This species is common throughout Mt. Pleasant's park system.  In fact it can be found in most Michigan counties and in every state east of a line running from North Dakota to Texas.

Common Blue Violet spreads easily by thick rhizomes

Common Blue Violet flowers vary in color from deep violet to pale blue to even white.  Regardless of the primary color they all feature a yellow spot in the throat (center) of the flower.  Common Blue Violet frequently blooms any time between late-March and June.  In 2014 I found this flower at about time in April.

Common Blue Violet varies in color from violet to pale blue or white

Common Blue Violet - note five petals and yellow throat

Wildflowers of 2016 - #5 Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

My third flower of the day was Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  I went to the park expecting to find this species.  We have a small patch of Bloodroot in our home wildflower garden and it began blooming over the weekend.  I was afraid that with the warm temperatures I might miss the Bloodroot bloom.  These species blooms for only a short period and there have been years where I have completely missed it.

Bloodroot flowers and leaves emerge from the ground at the same time

Bloodroot has almost exactly the same range as the Common Blue Violet - every state east of a line running from North Dakota to Texas.  It has been documented in seventy-one of Michigan's eighty-two counties.

A Small Carpenter Bee visiting a Bloodroot flower

I found numerous individual Bloodroot plants and numerous small colonies of three to over a dozen plants.  The colonies may be clones as this plant spreads by both seed and rhizomes.  Many of the flowers were being visited by a variety of small bees and beetles. 

A small colony of three Bloodroot plants - note the leaves are still curled up at this point

Several of the flowers that I found seemed impossibly small.  This flower is typically 1.5 to 3 inches across, but I found several perfectly formed flowers that barely covered my thumbnail (about .75 inches across).  I think the rapidly warming weather forced these plants to bloom more rapidly than they would normally do so - resulting in smaller flowers.

A small, but perfect Bloodroot flower

Wildflowers of 2016 - #6 Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

While photographing one of the Bloodroot flowers I looked up to see my next species.  There is a large colony of Dutchman's Breeches (Dicenta cucullaria) and its close relative Squirrel Corn (D. canadensis) at Chipp-A-Waters Park.  In fact this is the only place in Mt. Pleasant's park system that either of these species can be found.  Sometimes hundreds of these two species can be found blooming at once.  On Monday I was able to find only a pair of plants in bloom.

Dutchman's Breeches - note the parsley-like leaves and white and yellow flowers

Dutchman's Breeches has been documented in thirty-seven different states, mostly in the east, plus several Canadian provinces.  The species gets its name because its flowers resemble small pairs of pantaloons hanging by their ankles.  These flowers are visited by several species of pollinators including bumble bees, mason bees, bee flies, and beetles.

Dutchman's Breeches being visited by several small bees and a beetle

Wildflowers of 2016 - #7 Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

When searching for wildflowers it pays to have a good memory.  I often find flowers blooming because I remember where they have bloomed in the past.  This was the case with Wildflower #7.  Last year I found a patch of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) flowering within inches of the paved trail at the back of Chipp-A-Waters Park.  This time I found a single flower blooming.  Individual Trout Lily plants will not flower every year. it may take a number of years (some sources say up to seven) before a plant stores up enough energy to produce a flower.

Yellow Trout Lily often attracts beetles that feed on its pollen

For several years, Trout Lily corms (bulbs) have only enough stored energy to produce a single leaf.  It is only when the plant produces a pair of leaves that it will be ready to flower.   The leaves of the Trout Lily are speckled much like the flanks of a trout, giving the plant is common name.  The plants are also sometimes known as Fawn Lilies after the spotted coat of fawns.

Yellow Trout Lily - note the pair of speckled leaves

Wildflowers of 2016 - #8 Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

My final flower of the day was another tree species.  There is a small grove of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) at Chipp-A-Waters Park.  Like the Boxelder, Quaking Aspen trees are either male or female.  Male trees have their grouped on elongated clusters  known as catkins.  Each individual flower is small, but collectively they release large amount of small pollen into the wind.

Quaking Aspen blooms before the tree leafs out to take advantage of wind pollination

In addition to reproducing through pollination, Quaking Aspen also reproduces by cloning.  Large groves often consist of a single connected organism.  It is possible that the grove at Chipp-A-Waters Park is a single organism; every tree that I saw had only male flowers.

Dangling catkins of a male Quaking Aspen tree

Thursday, April 21, 2016

If you build a bluebird trail, they will come

Not a great photo, but it does show the male of the Bluebird pair that I saw at the Ziibiwing Center

The new bluebird trail at the Ziibiwing Center is drawing attention from the local birds.  Yesterday afternoon I stopped to see if there was any activity.  I found several pairs of Tree Swallows either perching on or entering boxes.  I also found at least one pair of Eastern Bluebirds staking a claim to one box.  The birds are still very skittish and are best observed from a distance - as they begin to nest and acclimate to attention you should be able to approach a little bit closer.  Out in the field behind the museum I also saw and heard at least two male Eastern Meadowlarks calling back and forth.

Again, not a great picture - Eastern Meadowlark male

Last week I even saw a birder, glassing the open fields with binoculars.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Upcoming Event - Bird Day Celebration

On Saturday May 14th the Isabella Conservation District and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways are hosting our fifth annual Migratory Bird Day Celebration.  This event is from 1:00 PM to 5:00PM and is free to the public.  The Ziibiwing Center is located at 6650 E. Broadway just east of Mt. Pleasant.

Some of the activities for the day include:

  • "The Wonder of Raptors" - a live birds of prey presentation by Wings of Wonder at 3:00 PM
  • Participate in bird banding Alma College biologist Mike Bishop
  • Owl Pellet dissection
  • Make an Audubon Bird Call
  • Decorate a bird mask and other crafts
  • Compare your "wingspan" to the wingspan of birds
  • Check out the Ziibiwing Center's new Ozhaashko Bineshiinh Miikan (Bluebird Trail)
  • Handle replicas skulls and eggs of some of Mid-Michigan's native birds
There will be lots of free goodies including stickers and posters.  We will also be giving away door prizes over the course of the afternoon (including International Migratory Bird Day t-shirts) - you must be present to win any door prizes.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mrs. LeValley's Woodpeckers

Part of a phone conversation that I had yesterday...

Shara (Mrs. LeValley):  "There's a giant thingy... a giant woodpecker... on one of the thingies!"

Me: "A Pileated Woodpecker?"

Shara:  "Yeah!"

Me:  "Well, go take a picture."

Shara:  "Okay, I have to put the phone down."

            a minute or so of silence

            " Okay, I got it."

(In her defense, Shara is a 2nd grade teacher and it was a very long day...)

Pileated Woodpecker outside a classroom window (#1) - photo by Shara LeValley

Pileated Woodpecker outside a classroom window (#2) - photo by Shara LeValley

Monday, April 11, 2016

A teaching highlight

Testing the properties of pyrite and quartz

Last Friday while teaching about the different properties of rocks and mineral, I had a 3rd grade student exclaim "I feel like I'm in college!"

I told him that I learned the same stuff when I was in college.

His response, "Cool!"

It totally made my day

Friday, April 8, 2016


When it comes to nature, I have many favorites.

I have a favorite place place to hunt for rocks.

I have a favorite place to watch the stars.

I have a favorite wildflower.

I have a favorite season.

Of all of the many photographs that I have taken, I have a favorite.

I had a favorite wildflower patch.  Before the paved trail was put in at Chipp-A-Waters Park, there was a patch of Dutchman's Breeches, Squirrel Corn, Large-flowered Trillium, Bloodroot, and more that was the best kept secret in Mt. Pleasant's park system.

Perhaps it wasn't such a secret, I told all of my wildflower loving friends and acquaintances about.  I even led people there on wildflower walks.  It remained beautiful.

Unfortunately, over the last few years, this patch has degraded.  Cutting trees to put in the paved trail opened up the canopy and let fore sunlight down to the forest floor.  Invasive shrubs began to pop up.  A very aggressive patch of Lily-of-the-valley marched across the woodland and encroached on the patch.  For the past two or three years, i have been fighting a battle to keep Garlic Mustard from overrunning the patch.

This wildflower patch still has its moments.

Unfortunately, with all of the challenges, it's days seem to be numbered.  I still love it - this patch of woods did more to kindle my love of wildflowers than any other place around.  I still get excited to go their during the spring bloom, but it's not the same as that original "secret" patch.

I have a new favorite wildflower patch.  Unlike the mixed patch at Chipp-A-Waters Park.  This 'new" patch is composed of only one species.

It's an enormous patch of Mayapple.  It's in one of Mt. Pleasant's parks, but it's off the beaten path and will probably always stay that way.  If you ask, I might tell you how to get there.  If you are really lucky, I might show it to you...  If you can keep a secret.