Monday, March 27, 2017

A long way from the tundra

I spent Friday and Saturday (24 & 25 March) at the Michigan Science Teachers Association (MSTA) annual conference in Novi, MI.  On Friday I presented two programs titled "Michigan Mammals" and "Michigan Trees".  On Saturday I spent several hours manning a booth for the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE).

Yesterday (26 March) I decided to drive into Mt. Pleasant to drop off the materials that I had taken to Novi to use in my presentations.  On the way to Mt. Pleasant I noticed a flock of large birds flying over the road and landing in a field of corn stubble.  I was expecting Canada Geese (Branta canadensis); it is common to find them in fields, feeding on waste corn.

I was not expecting to see Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus).

I was especially not expecting to see hundreds of Tundra Swans!

Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me - violating the First Rule of Photography.  I though for a minute about returning home, but decided to continue on to Mt. Pleasant.  When I returned home, about an hour later, there were even more swans in the field.   I rushed home to retrieve my camera and drove back to the site.

I parked along the side of the road and began to photograph from inside my truck.  Small flocks continued to arrive while I sat there.

By the time I left, there were approximately four to five hundred swans on the ground, feeding on corn and posturing to impress mates or intimidate rivals.  I made this estimate by counting the number of swans in a section of the field and multiplying that by the approximate length of entire flock.  Most of the swans had the pure white plumage of adults, but some still had the grey tint of immature birds (especially on the neck and head).  In addition to the swans, there were also approximately one hundred Canada Geese in the field.


Usually I only see flocks this size at the Maple River State Game Area near US-127.  Usually they are far out in the water away from the highway, with no way to see them up close.

When I drove by the field again this morning all of the swans were gone - but we did see a few in another field closer to Mt. Pleasant.  It was really exciting to have the opportunity to see and photograph these birds. 

UPDATE:  Right now (27 MAR at 9:00 AM) there is a flock (approximately 100 swans) in the field west of the Soaring Eagle Casino. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Butterflies in Bloom 2017

On Sunday (19 March) we went to the 2017 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 (mostly tropical) 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 can also be very skittish. 

Butterflies in Bloom continues until Sunday April 16th.  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. 
Here are just a few photographs from the exhibit.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sedges are habitat forming...

In the lowland area at Mission Creek Woodland Park there is an area of northern hardwood swamp with a canopy of mostly Red Maple (Acer rubrum) trees.  The floor of this swamp is dominated in part by tussocks of sedge (Carex spp.).

I love photographing these tussocks- they are just so photogenic.

Besides their obvious photographic value, they do serve other functions.  Once these tussocks are established, they serve as a habitat for other plants.  If you look in the picture below, you should notice stalks projecting from many of the tussocks.  Most of these stalks belong to Rough-leaved Goldenrod plants.  The goldenrod plants would probably drown if they tried to grow directly in the water of the swamp, but the sedges have provided little micro-habitats that elevate the goldenrod above the water and allow them to grow.

Many of the Red Maple trees in this swamp also started their life on the tussocks.  Seeds that were lucky enough to land on a tussock found conditions just right for growth - rich soil, just enough moisture, and warmth (the green tussocks warm up in the sunlight and are warmer than the surrounding soil and water).  Eventually some of these trees may grow to adulthood.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Vernal Equinox 2017

The Skunk Cabbage knows that Spring has arrived.

Today at 6:28 AM EST, Winter officially ended and Spring began in the Northern Hemisphere.  The day that this change occurs is known as the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.  The word equinox comes from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).  On the Equinox the sun strikes directly on the Equator resulting in approximately equal periods of day and night across the globe.

The Earth rotates around its axis approximately once every 24 hours.  However this axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees from the vertical.  The points on the globe that the axis revolves around are referred to as the North and South Poles.  The axis is always pointed toward the same location in the sky.  The North Pole points toward the "North Star" - Polaris.

At any given time, fifty percent of the earth is in sunlight (Day) and the other fifty percent is in darkness (Night).  However, because the Earth is tilted on its axis sunlight does not always strike the Earth at the same angle.  This means during different seasons different parts of the Earth will receive varying amounts of sunlight and darkness.

As the earth revolves around the sun, sometimes the North Pole is closer to the sun, sometimes the South Pole is closer to the sun.  When the North Pole is at its closest, the sun lights a larger portion of the Northern Hemisphere than it does the Southern Hemisphere.  When this happens, we experience Summer in Mid-Michigan and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Winter.  When the North Pole is at its furthest from the sun, we experience Winter and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Summer.  During our Northern Winter, the sun is striking a a larger portion of the Southern Hemisphere than it is the Northern Hemisphere.

On the Equinox, the poles are essentially perpendicular to the rays of the sun so locations in the northern and southern hemispheres receive equal hours of sunlight and darkness.  Mt. Pleasant is located at 43 degrees 36 minutes north of the equator.  On the equinox, it experiences 12 hours 9 minutes worth of daylight.  A location located at 43 degrees 36 minutes south of the equator will receive approximately the same length of daylight.  The hours of daylight that Mt. Pleasant Experiences will grow until it reaches 15 hours 24 minutes around the Summer Solstice.  Then our hours of sunlight will diminish until on the Winter Solstice we experience only 8 hours 57 minutes of daylight, before increasing again.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Snakes Patrick Day!

It's time for my annual St. Patrick's Day tradition - sharing a photo of snakes.
This cluster of mating Eastern Garter Snakes would probably have enraged St. Patrick.

There are all sorts of legends surrounding St. Patrick.

My favorite legend about St. Patrick says that Ireland has no snakes because St. Patrick chased them from 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.

While this is a great story, 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.  Ireland you're missing out.

Fun fact:  In addition to being the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick is also the patron saint of engineers and the nation of Nigeria.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day 2017!

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 area 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

Just for fun I bought two pies to celebrate Pi Day.

Celebrating Pi Day with blueberry pie (left) and caramel apple pie (right)
Now for a little Pie (pi) related math.  The diameter (the distance across a circle from one side to the opposite side, passing through the center of the circle) of each of these pies is 8.5 inches.  To calculate the circumference (the distance around the perimeter of a circle) we just need to multiply 8.5 inches by pi (3.14).

                  Circumference  = π x diameter

                  Circumference = 3.14 x 8.5 inches

                  Circumference =  26.69 inches

To calculate the area of the pie we need to know the radius.  Radius is the distance from the center of a circle to the edge of the circle.  This number is one half of the diameter - so if the diameter of these pies is 8.5 inches, the radius would be 8.5 inches divided by 2, which equals 4.25 inches.  The formula for calculating the area of a circle is Area = pi times the radius squared (the radius times the radius). Expressed as a mathematical formula this is A= πr2.

                 Area = πr2
                 Area = π x (radius x radius)

                 Area = 3.14 x (4.25 inches x 4.25 inches)

                 Area = 3.14 x (18.0625 inches2)

                 Area = 56.71625 inches2

That's 56.71625 square inches of delicious per pie!

Math makes pie more delicious!
To learn more about Pi Day and how to celebrate the event please visit the official website of Pi Day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

I'm on the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy Board


Over the past 4+ years, I have shared a few dozen posts about and probably hundreds of photographs taken at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's many preserves.  I have brought students to the preserves to learn more about science in the field.  I have led probably close to twenty public events in the preserves.  Last year I was honored to receive the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Robert (Bob) Ball Award for my contributions to the Conservancy's mission of protecting natural habitat and open space.

Now a new chapter of my relationship with the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy begins.  Over the past year or so several members of the CWC Board of Directors have asked if I would be willing to serve on the Board if a spot opened up.  Recently two positions have become available.  After meeting last week with CWC President John Mitchell, I accepted an offer to join the Board immediately.

My first meeting as a member of the Board is this Wednesday (15 MAR 2017).

I look forward to this challenge and can't wait to see the direction that the organization takes over the next few years.

To learn more about the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy please check out their website.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

First wildflower of 2017

Several people have asked me in person if I have found any wildflowers yet this year.  Yes, I have.  I actually found my first species earlier this week.

My first wildflower of the year is no surprise.  Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is the first flower I find every single year.  While winter may have been nonexistent this year, Skunk Cabbage is right on its normal scheduled for blooming.  In fact, last year I found my first Skunk Cabbage bloom during the same week of March.  The only difference is that last year's flower was surrounded by snow.

I am not doing a Wildflower Big Year in 2017, but that doesn't mean that I won't be photographing and sharing wildflowers.  I am always on the lookout for species that I have never seen before.  I just won't be searching as intensely as last year.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Trail camera pictures (23 Feb through 06 Mar)

It's been three weeks since I have posted any photos from my trail cameras.  About 10 days ago I placed both cameras out in one of the local parks along wildlife trails.  Yesterday I went out and switched out the memory cards for the cameras (while leaving the cameras in place).

Camera #1
This camera is located in the same place as my first set of images from late January.  I already knew from the first set of pictures that a lot of wildlife uses this area and hoped to get some good pictures.  The camera is just far enough from the trail that animals don't seem to be bother by it, although I did have a opossum or raccoon check it out at night from close range.  Species diversity was about the same as the first set of pics.

Virginia Opossums (Didelphus virginiana) showed up several different nights.  One night a pair showed up on the camera together.

Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) also showed up on the camera several times...

As did several leaping squirrels.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) showed up every day on the camera, either as individuals or in small groups.  The most to appear on the camera at one time was six deer.

I did have one new species show up on this camera.  This species was one that I was hoping to get images of and I was not disappointed.  What is this mystery species?

It's the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) of course!  I have seen numerous turkeys in this park but have never been close enough to get a clear photograph.  This is where trail cameras are awesome!  I had turkeys show up several times.

A lone tom showed up once...

So did a pair of toms...

And a flock of hens and last year's chicks.  A young male would be known as a jake, and (I just learned this) a young female is a jenny.

Camera #2
My second camera was placed along a trail about 50 yards from the first camera.  While it is possible that an animal might show up on one camera and then appear on the other camera a short time later, it is more likely that each camera will record distinct animals as the cameras are set along parallel trails.

The first camera is set up to record pictures in three shot bursts (spaced one second apart).  This second camera does not have that option and only records on image at a time.  Therefore, there were a lot less pictures on this camera

This camera recorded many of the same species as the other camera.

Northern Raccoons appeared on two separate nights; one night as an individual and another night as a pair.

A couple of squirrels showed up on this camera too...

As did several deer...

Including one small buck that is still holding on to its antlers.

For me the best image captured on this camera was the first one it recorded.  That's a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) in the picture below.  I don't necessarily have a favorite bird, but if I did the Pileated Woodpecker would be in the running.  I get excited every time I see one.  A close encounter with a Pileated Woodpecker is one of my all-time favorite bird sightings.

The cameras are still in place.  Who knows what will show up on them the next time I check...

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

An Alphabet of Michigan Plants (N through Z)

Yesterday I posted the first half of an alphabet book that I created back at the beginning of the school year.  Here is the second half (letters N through Z).