Monday, January 30, 2017

First trail camera pictures (update)

When I looked through the trail camera pictures from last week I skimmed through them so fast that I missed something.  Over the weekend, I uploaded them to my computer and found that I had missed a sixth species - a Fox Squirrel.

Fox Squirrel on the trail camera

Sometime this week I plan to get the camera back up in the woods, possibly in a new place.

Friday, January 27, 2017

First trail camera pictures

One of my 2016 Christmas gifts was a trail/game camera.  Over the weekend I put it out for the first time in a secluded area of one of the local parks.  This morning I went to retrieve it.  Here are a few of the images it recorded.  Nothing too exciting, but I have high hopes that I will see more in the future.

Grey Squirrel (center) and Downy Woodpecker (right, on log)
Grey Squirrel (black-phase)
Northern Raccoon

Virginia Opossum

White-tailed Deer

Each of the animals in the photos were seen on multiple dates, with the exception of the woodpecker.  The two squirrels appeared every day, but never together.  The raccoon and opossum both showed up on two separate nights.  The pair of deer showed up on three separate days, but only in low light.  A solo deer (not shown in any of the pictures) appeared once during the daytime.

Overall the camera was triggered more than forty times over the five days it was set up and recorded more than one hundred twenty images - the camera was set up to take a three-image burst any time it was triggered.  The five species above were the only ones recorded.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The structure of a feather

One of the programs that I teach is Michigan Birds.  Part of this program focuses on feathers and their functions.  Most students (and adults) have played with a feather at some point.  One of the things that almost everyone has done with a feather is to peel it apart and then "zip" it back together.

Have you ever wondered why and how a feather can do this?

It all has to do with structure.

The larger feathers have a stiff central structure called a rachis

One opposite sides of the rachis are flat structures called vanes.  The vane are composed of stiff parallel structures called barbs.  Each barb grows out from the rachis.

Each barb is further divided into smaller parts.  Growing from opposite sides of a bard are small parallel growths called barbules.  The barbules that emerge from one barb grow toward and interlock with the barbules from the next-door barb.

The barbuless are not the smallest part of the feather.  On the sides of each barbule are even smaller structures called barbicels.  These structures act like hooks and interlock with the barbicels on the adjacent barbule.  When you feel the barbs of a feather apart, the barbicles become unlocked; when you "zip" the feather back together again, the barbicels lock back together.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Searching for color in the winter woods

Yesterday morning I drove into Mt. Pleasant to spend a little bit of time wandering through the swamps at Mission Creek Woodland Park.  While I enjoy swamps any time of year, winter is the easiest time to travel through them in mid-Michigan.  Much of the surface water in the swamp is frozen this time of year and if you tread carefully you can walk across places where you would normally be in mud up to your knees.  I will admit to a few ill-advised steps that broke through thin ice and a few more that were made in areas with no ice present.  Mud... it happens.

Any time spent outdoors is good time.

Most of the time a walk through the woods in winter is about seeing the small details.

Leaves and stems melting through ice left by a recent storm

Fog droplets on a young American Beech tree

Color can be hard to find.  Sometimes it is subtle...

Turkey Tail fungus on a stump

Sometimes it is jarring when seen against all the drabs colors of the snow and sky.

Moss on a fallen log

Did you notice spider webs on the moss in the picture above?  There were hundred of webs strewn everywhere throughout the swamp.  A closer look revealed the architects...

The brightest color to be found throughout the swamp was the green of sedge tussocks.  Some of the tussocks were surrounded by open water (and last year's leaves); other tussocks were surrounded by ice and snow.

Sedge tussock and Red Oak leaves

Sedge tussocks surrounded by ice

The recent spate of warm weather has caused much of the snow and ice to melt away.  The trees both slow it down by blocking some of the rays of the sun, and speed it up by warming at the base because of the sun.

Snow melts quickly at the base of trees

Some meltwater is pooling in low areas, filling what will become seasonal ponds later in the year.  Other water is flowing away to lower areas.  As the water flows it cuts down through the ice.

Water flowing over the ice

A channel curves around tussocks and through the ice

Eventually, much of the water will flow either over the ground or through the soil to Mission Creek and from there to the Chippewa River.

Mission Creek

Someday this curve of the creek will cut completely through that bank and create an oxbow

Some of the my favorite finds of the day were the smallest.  Many of the trees in the swamp are covered with various types of lichens.  Some are easy to see from the ground.  Others are found higher in the trees.  When a tree falls, it brings those lichens down to a level where they are easy to see.

My favorite image of the day though was taken as I left the park.  Both sides of Crawford Road (also known as Harris St.) are lined with woods that arch over the roadway.  Even on sunny days this section of road is dark.  Yesterday, the warm temperatures and melting snows caused dense fog throughout the area.  It creates a really cool moody feeling to any woodland scene.

Crawford Road (Harris Street) near Mission Creek Park

Friday, January 20, 2017

Roadside eagles (20 January 2017)

Eagle #1

Eagle #2

Today, while driving home from work, we saw a pair of mature Bald Eagles in a field just north of the Shepherd village limits.  Both eagles were on the ground when we drove by.  We stopped long enough to observe them for a few minutes and take a couple photographs. 

The pictures did not turn out that well due to the distance and the dreary weather/poor light.  While we were watching several other cars stopped along the road behind.  Eventually one of the eagles flew away while the other remained on the ground.  I reported the sighting on eBird and found out that at least one eagle had been seen in almost exactly the same location yesterday.

Eagle #2 flying past Eagle #1

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Are you a scientist?

Me explaining the components of soil to students at a local event

Every once in a while a student will ask  question that I have no idea how to answer.

Specifically, they ask "Are you a scientist?"

I struggle with how to answer that question.  What exactly does the word scientist mean?  When I look online for a definition of the word I get lots of different answers.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as "a person learned in science and especially natural science :  a scientific investigator". says that a scientist is "an expert in science, especially one of the physical or natural sciences".

The Oxford Dictionary defines scientist as "a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences".

As adults we tend to think that scientist is a job; that scientists are paid for their work.  While this is often true, there is nothing in any of those definitions that says a scientist is someone who is paid for doing science.  

Heather Shaw (a biologist) collects data during a wildlife study

For most of history, scientist was not a paid job.  Science was something that people did during their spare time as a hobby.  Many people still do science as a hobby - today we use the term citizen scientist to differentiate them from professional scientists who are paid for their work.  Citizen scientists include people who collect data on weather, bird watchers, butterfly counters, etc.. Professional scientists often use the data collected by citizen scientists to piece together larger ideas.

Citizen scientists collect data on native plants at the CWC's Hall's Lake Natural Area

I am not a professional paid scientist.  I don't really consider myself a citizen scientist - I am not systematically collecting long term data on a single subject or site.  A friend who works as a biologist (a professional scientist) once referred to me as a "well versed naturalist".  

According to the Oxford Dictionary a naturalist is "an expert in or student of natural history". defines a naturalist as "a person who studies or is an expert in natural history, especially a zoologist or botanist".  Merriam-Webster says that a naturalist is "a student of natural history; especially :  a field biologist".

Like the word scientist, naturalist has been turned into an occupation.  I know several people that work as naturalists at nature centers or parks, paid to interpret nature to the public.  I don't really consider myself a naturalist.

Me explaining the zones of a wetland to 6th grade students.

Kids tend to think in different terms.  To them anyone that knows a lot about science or studies science is a scientist.  Their idea of a scientist is close to the dictionary definitions of the word.  So the next time a student asks if I am a scientist, I am going to say "Yes, I am a scientist".  

But, here is the big secret: the kids are scientists too.  

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to be a scientist.  You just have to be able to use your senses to observe the natural world.

Student scientists measure a forest canopy

You need to be able to ask questions about what you observe.

Students observing aquatic macroinvertebrates that they collected from a local pond

You need to be able to conduct experiments to answer the questions that you come up with through observation.  An experiment is often just a more careful observation focused on answering your questions.

Biting a lump of clay?  Nope, that student is conducting an experiment.

Some people are paid to be scientists.  Some do it out of love for learning about the world.  The truth is that we are all scientists if we follow our natural curiosity about the world. People only stop being a scientist when they chose to ignore that part of themselves that wants to learn more.  Get out there and be a scientist!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

Snowy Owls in Mid-Michigan (2017)

For approximately the last month, two (or maybe three) Snowy Owls have been found in the fields a few miles southeast of Alma.  Twice Shara and I drove through the area where people sighted them.

No luck.

Several people that I know, both serious birders and casual birders have had success in seeing at least one of the owls.

Yesterday we decided to give it another try.  We drove right back to the same location that we had visited before and slowly drove down the road.

Success! Finally!  Shara spied the bird out in a field, about 100 yards away, perched atop a small snow bank.  We pulled over and observed the owl for about 15 minutes, with hope that it would fly somewhere we could get a better (closer) view of it.

It was not to be, but we can say that we saw it.  We both snapped several photos.  The pictures are nothing special, but as this is only the third Snowy Owl that either of us has seen they are special to us.

To find recently sightings of Snow Owls (and other birds) visit eBird.  This website allows people to post data and photos of their sightings and is a valuable tool both for birders and scientists.  The report that I filed for this owl can be found here.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Snow Day!

Ice storm photo from lat 2005 or early 2006

Today marked the third day in a row that most local schools were cancelled due to poor road conditions.  I hope that all of the students (and teachers) have enjoyed this unplanned mini-vacation.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Native Species Profile - Painted Turtle

Michigan is home to ten species of turtles.  By far the most common species is the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta).  This species can be found throughout the Upper and Lower Peninsula.  The only species that approaches it in terms of distribution in Michigan is the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  The Common Snapping turtle is also found throughout the Upper and Lower Peninsula.  However, it is not found on Isle Royale while the Painted Turtle is.   Overall the Painted turtle can be found across much of the northern United States and southern Canada, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  It ranges as far south as the Gulf of Mexico in the east and southwest into Colorado and New Mexico.

Part of the reason for the broad distribution of this species is its adaptability.  Painted Turtles prefer still or slow-moving permanent bodies of water such as lakes and ponds., but they will use swiftly-flowing rivers and streams as well as season wetlands on a temporary basis.  Painted Turtles are often found traveling overland in search of new bodies of water.  They are often seen basking on log, rocks, or floating vegetation.

Painted Turtles often bask in large number on logs and other objects in the water

Painted Turtles are generally small.  Adults have a shell that measures from 4 to about 9 inches in length.  The upper surface of the shell (carapace) is olive green to black colored.  The lower half of the shell (plastron) is yellowish with a dark blotch in the center.  The outer edge of the carapace has red or orange blotches/spots.  The skin of the turtle's head legs, and tail is also olive green to black in color.  The head and neck have yellow (and sometimes red) stripes.  The Painted Turtles found in Mid-Michigan belong to a sub-species called the Midland Painted Turtle that commonly has red stripes on its head and neck.

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtles are omnivores.  They normally feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crayfish, and snails.  They also frequently eat tadpoles and small fish.  A large part of their diet consists of algae and aquatic plants.

Painted Turtle - note yellow stripes on neck and orange blotches along the edge of the carapace (upper shell)

During the winter months, Painted Turtles bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds lakes and rivers where they will hibernate from October/November until late March or early April.  It is not uncommon for Painted Turtles to be active in cold weather and people occasionally see them swimming around under ice. 

Basic Information

Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta

Size:  4-9" long

Habitat:  Permanent water sources such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks

Eats:  aquatic insects, fish, tadpole, crayfish, snails, plants

Friday, January 6, 2017

Sunset (05 January 2017)

Last night's sunset was quite dramatic.  Shara snapped a few photos with my camera while we were driving home from work.  Here is my favorite one of the bunch.

Sunset - 05 January 2017 (photo by Shara LeValley)

To learn why we see the colors that we do at sunset (and sunrise) please check out this post on Roy G. Biv and the wavelengths of light

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Change over time

On Tuesday (03 JAN) I stopped at Mill Pond Park just to take a few photographs.  There is a small stream that runs from a cattail marsh into the Chippewa River.  Over the past 10+ years I have photographed this stream repeatedly.   The photographs are usually nothing special.  I mainly take them because it is a place that I have documented so many times in the past.  Here are two photographs from this place that show how things have changed in the past decade.

This is the first photo that I ever took of this location.  It dates from sometime in the Spring of 2006 and was taken with a film camera.  The picture was eventually scanned.  When I took this picture, I liked how the bend in the stream is matched by the branches in the Boxelder tree growing next to the bank.  I also liked how the tree was reflected in the stream.

Here is the same location, photographed this week.  The Boxelder tree has long since died and fallen over.  The remaining trunk and branches lay over the stream.  Given a few more years, the trunk will rot away to nothing - Boxelder is not a strong, dense, rot-resistant wood. 

 I like this ability to look back through time, to see how the landscape has changed.  Not for the better, or the worse.  It has simply changed.