Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nature Geek Vacation Destinations - Custer State Park, Custer, SD

One of the highlights of our recent vacation in South Dakota was a pair of visits to Custer State Park.  Our first visit to Custer State Park was preceded by a trip to Mt. Rushmore National Monument.  From Mt. Rushmore, the shortest route into Custer State Park is US Route 16A.  Also known as Iron Mountain Road, this route passes through three tunnels and multiple switchbacks and loops that frame views of Mt. Rushmore.  There are also several scenic turnouts and parking areas that allow you to see panoramic views of the Black Hills and the plains to the east of the park.

At the eastern edge of the park Route 16A joins up with South Dakota Highway 36.  SD 36 will lead you east out of the park.  If you continue west on 16A, you will need to purchase a South Dakota State Park entrance permit.  As of July 2017, annual permits cost $30; Custer State Park also offers the option of a 7-day pass for $20.  We chose to purchase the 7-day pass as we did not intend to visit any other South Dakota State Park.  A short drive from the entrance gate is the east end of the park's Wildlife Loop Road.

Upcoming Event - Monarch Butterfly Celebration (Saturday 16 September 2017)

Join me on Saturday September 16th from 1:00PM to 4:00PM for the annual Monarch Butterfly Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways.  The Ziibiwing Center is located at 6650 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant.

I will  have information about ways to help Monarchs (and other pollinators) and free posters at this event.  I hope to have Monarch butterflies to tag and release at the celebration - I have been seeing lots of adult Monarchs this week and will begin collecting caterpillars next week.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Insect photos (03 August 2017)

This morning I walked into the field behind my office with my camera in hand. I had no specific goals in mind, I just wanted to get away from my desk for a few minutes.  Right away I noticed that the field was full of insect life and birds.  I wasn't fast enough to get a picture of any of the birds, but I did manage to take over one hundred twenty pictures of insects in a little over fifteen minutes - most were multiple images of the same few insects.  Here are five of the best pictures.

Common Wood Nymph (Cercyonis pegala) on Riverbank Grape leaf surrounded by Spotted Knapweed

Japanese Beetles (Popillia japonica) on Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia)

Ants nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with Japanese Beetles

Red Milkweed Beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on Common Milkweed

Swamp Milkweed Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) and Red Milkweed Beetle on Common Milkweed

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Friday Night Lights at Sylvan Solace Preserve (28 July 2017)

In about three weeks high school football season kicks off here in Mid-Michigan.  Last week the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Sylvan Solace Preserve was host to its own version of Friday Night Lights.  But instead of football, this version involved insects - specifically moths.

Six amateur lepidopterists (people who study moths and butterflies) gathered at Sylvan Solace with the goal of attracting and identifying some of preserve's many species of moths (and other insects).  This purpose of this event was to celebrate National Moth Week.  This is not the first time the CWC has celebrated National Moth Week, but unlike past attempts this one did not get cancelled due to weather.

There are many ways to attract moths.  One of the simplest ways is to go out into the woods (or other habitat) with a bright light source and a light colored sheet.  Suspend the sheet between a couple of trees and shine the light on it - the moths will be attracted to (or confused by) the bright light and land on the sheet where they can be identified at your leisure.

Setting for this activity was the (relatively) easy part.  However, Sylvan Solace Preserve does not have a source of power so one had to be brought in.  My lepidopterists will use deep-cycle marine batteries to power their lights.  I don't have any batteries handy, but I did have access to a small generator.  So in addition to the sheets and lights, the generator had to be hauled into and out of the woods.  No one wants to sit right next to a loud, smoky generator while they are trying to enjoy nature - so I also hauled about 300 feet of extension cords so the generator could be placed further away.

Once the lights were turned on and darkness fell, the moths began to arrive almost immediately.  Moth identification can be challenging in the woods, especially since so many of the species are small and nondescript (brown, grey, with few distinguishing marks). We did our best, but were only able to positively identify a couple of the more distinctive species in the field.

Several hours of poring over my photographs and field guides led to these identifications:

Gray Half-spot (Nedra ramosula)

Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis)

European Corn Borer (Ostrinia nibilalis)

Sweetfern Geometer (Cyclophora pendulinaria)

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa)

Banded Tussock Moth (Halysidota tessellaris)
There is a possibility that the above moth is not a Banded Tussock Moth, but rather a Syacamore Tussock Moth (H. harrissii).  However, I do not know of any Sycamore trees in the immediate area of Sylvan Solace Preserve.  Without this host plant, I think that it is more likely the Banded Tussock Moth.

Dark-banded Owlet (Phalaenophana pyramusalis)

Oak Leafroller (Argyrotaenia quercifoliana)

Sigmoid Prominent (Clostera albosigma)

Subgothic Dart (Feltia subgothica)

Common Grey (Anavitrinella pampinaria)

These were not the only moths that came to the party.  A few more hours of effort should probably lead to several more identifications - if I identify more species I will add them in a separate posting.  If you notice any errors in identification, please let me know.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Jay, or not a Jay - that is the question:

I like mascots, but one of my pet peeves is the improper use of mascots.  It especially bothers me when a team uses an animal as a mascot, but the name of the team and the animal mascot do not match.  If you are going to use an animal as a mascot, you should at least use the correct animal!  One of our local school districts uses the Blue Jay as its mascot.  However, it does not consistently use the same version of a Blue Jay.  One of the versions that it uses is not a Blue Jays at all! 

This is the version on the sign outside the high school.  That is a correct body shape and markings for a Blue Jay, but the colors are a little off.  It should have a white face and white chest/belly.  The feet and beak should be black not yellow, but overall this is pretty good compared to one of the other versions.  I think everyone seeing this would recognize that this is supposed to be a Blue Jay.

The next version appears on the sign outside the school district's central offices.  This "fighting" version seems to be a combination of a Blue Jay and Uncle Sam.  Other than the blue Uncle Sam beard, the markings on this Jay are pretty good.  There is no question that this mascot is a Blue Jay.

"Uncle Jay"wants you...
Here is another version of the same "fighting" Blue Jay.  Rendered in two tones, this version is used on signs pointing out various school facilities in town.  The markings on this version are good, even down to the v-shaped collar, and visible barring on the nearest wing.  This is a cartoon animal mascot done right.

Here is yet another version of the "fighting" Blue Jay.  This version is used on the sign for the district's elementary school.  It is not unusual for elementary schools to use a simplified cartoon version of the high school mascot.  The yellow beak and feet are wrong.  The bird lacks any black markings or white underparts.  (And what's up with the blue scarf?)   Despite these points, I'm actually okay with this as an elementary school mascot - it conveys the point that this is a Jay.  It's a "fighting" jay, but its also a friendly jay - look at the smile and happy eyes.

Despite what the sign says, this is not a Blue Jay.  That is a Northern Cardinal that has been painted blue.  This non-jay adorns the sign for the middle school.   Shame on the sign company for printing this...

From the worst "Jay" to the best.  This final version adorns a sign at the school's athletic complex.  Blue crest - check.  Black collar - check.  White face and underparts - check and check.  Black beak and feet - check.  Blue tail and wing feathers with black bars - check.  This is definitely "Blue Jay Country"!  I think John James Audubon himself would approve of this Blue Jay.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Go to the Fair - Isabella County Fair (through Saturday July 29th)

This week (24 - 29 July 2017), the Isabella Conservation District has a booth at the Isabella County Fair.  Today Shara (Mrs. LeValley) joined me at the fair for a few hours and we took time to walk around all of the exhibits and animal barns.

Shara with a new friend

Until I moved away to college (at age seventeen), I lived on and around farms.  Every year we would go to the county fair - visiting the merchant buildings (where local businesses always gave things away to kids and adults), checking out the arts & crafts and other exhibits, climbing on new tractors and other farm machinery, riding carnival rides, and more!

The Ferris Wheel

One of the highlights was visiting the different animal barns.  Although I never showed animals at the fair many of my friends did.  I always saw people that  I knew when we went to the fair.

The animal buildings at the fair are still a highlight for me.  Now, when I go to the fair, I see the children of friends and co-workers exhibiting animals.  I also see lots of students from classrooms that I visit.  The students always want to tell me about their animals (especially if they won prizes).

Here are a few pics of animals from the fair.

A stylish sheep

Being a hog is tiring

A pen of goat kids
Rabbits are one of the most popular animals to show

Shara conversing with a prize-winning pen of chickens

Dairy feeders

Teens showing beef cattle

I think everyone should visit their local county fair.  With less and less people growing up around farms and being connected to agriculture, this is one of the few opportunities that many people have to interact with farm animals (or even see them up close).  For the kids that exhibit animals, the fair provides an opportunity to develop responsibility as they raise and then show their animals.  Many of the animals are then sold at the fair, earning the kids money for their hard work.  Local businesses and individuals will often pay big bucks for animals especially champions.

If you visit the Isabella County fair, stop into the Merchant's Building and say hello to me (or other conservation district staff), eat at the 4-H food stand (the food is good and the money goes to support 4-H and the fair), and be sure to see all of the animals.

If you can't visit the Isabella County Fair, visit one of the other county fairs held across the state between now and September.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Upcoming Event - Friday Night Moth Hunt (28 July 2017)


This week is National Moth Week!  To celebrate, please join me this Friday night (28 July) at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Sylvan Solace Preserve as we host a moth hunt.  We will be hanging lighted sheets in the woods to draw in moths and other nocturnal insects.

Sylvan Solace Preserve is located on W. Pickard Road (between Littlefield Rd. and Gilmore Rd.) approximately 8.5 miles west of downtown Mt. Pleasant.

This event is scheduled to begin at 9:00PM and will run for at least two hours.  The event is free to the public, but donations to the CWC are always encouraged. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

At home in the (Mostly) Native Pollinator Garden - 23 July 17

Last week I shared some photos of two of the native pollinator gardens that we maintain (and the story of why I am digging up a third garden).

I am going to start off this week by sharing some photos from our home garden.  I always refer to it a (Mostly) Native Pollinator Garden.  It is probably about 75 per cent native plants, but there are many domestic plants included in the garden.  Some of these (spiderwort, irises, hostas, etc.) were already here when we moved in in 2011.  Other plants (garden phlox, Turk's Cap Lily, Shasta Daisy, sedum, etc.) we added to the garden.  We have also planted several hundred tulip bulbs.  Nowadays, when we add plants they are almost always native species.

The result is that we have a garden that blends the native and non-native.  Although I advocate for the use of native plants, there is nothing wrong with using a mixture.  I know my garden is not a wild habitat, but it is close in function.  I frequently see hundreds of insects each day - especially native bees.  They are drawn by the abundant pollen and nectar of the blooming plants as well as the nesting sites that we provide for them.

One of the things that I like about our garden is the layering.  It almost never needs weeding because of a layer of low plants that act as groundcover.  Above that there are flowering plants in several layers up to eight feet tall!

The view of the southeast corner of the house

Further along the south side of the house

The garden as seen from the street

Here are few of the wildflower species that can be found in the garden:

Red Baneberry grows in the shade at the front of the house

Northern Maidenhair Fern is another shade-loving species

Rosinweed is one of the giants in the garden at nearly 8 feet

Purple Conflower adds a change from all the yellow flowers

Green Coneflower is up to 5 feet tall - it needs other plants to keep it from flopping over

Cup Plant is another giant in the garden.  This one is growing right next to the corner of the porch.

A closer view of a Cup plant flower

Cup Plant leaves hold rainwater at their base.  This water is used by bees, wasps, other insects, and even small birds!

Big-leafed Aster

Blue-eyed Grass

Our garden is certified as a Monarch Waystation.

Our garden is home to home to dozens of native bees.  We have several nesting sites for several cavity-nesting species including mason. leafcutter, and small carpenter bees.  The holes that the bees nest in are quickly filling up.

One of our bee nesting boxes

These drilled holes are about 5 - 6 inches deep.  Filled holes are capped with sections of leaves or mud.

Another nesting block up close.  Each hole contains as many as six bee larvae and enough food for them to mature to adulthood.

Because we have so many bees, we need to provide plenty of food in the form of pollen and nectar.  Our goal is to have something in bloom from April to October.  Here are a few more of the native plants that help us achieve that goal.  These plants are all growing in the shaded areas at the rear of th house.

Culver's Root - even though this plant prefers full sun, it is thriving in partial shade

Woodland Sunflower

Ground-cherry came up on its own this year.  Thanks birds!

False Sunflower - another one in partial shade

Highbush Cranberry provides winter food for birds.