Thursday, December 21, 2017

A walk in the park (20 December 2017)

Tuesday was my last classroom program before schools went on break for the holidays.  With that freedom of schedule, I managed to get outdoors yesterday (20 December) for a short visit to Mill Pond Park. 

Here are some of the photos that came from that trip.

This small creek remains flowing through a swamp.

Shallow roots and waterlogged soils mean fallen trees.
Air bubbles captured in ice in a puddle in the woods

Fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern poke up through the snow.

Oak and maple leaves

Cattails, cattails, and more cattails!

Sedges and leaves frozen in the ice

Rushes and frozen pancakes of ice

These patterns in the ice remind me of waves in Japanese woodblock prints, fabrics, and pottery.  

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Winter Solstice 2017

An early winter sunrise (2013)

Winter begins tomorrow (21 December 2017) at 11:28AM.

The moment this change of seasons occurs is known as the Winter Solstice.  The word Solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).  Tomorrow the sun will have reached its lowest position in the southern Sky, giving us our shortest day of the year.  On the Summer Solstice, Mid-Michigan received approximately 15 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight.  Tomorrow Mid-Michigan will see only 8 hours and 56 minutes of sunlight, but from now until the Summer Solstice each day will grow longer.

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.

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, we experience Summer in Mid-Michigan and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Winter.  When the North Pole is at its furthest, we experience Winter and the Southern Hemisphere experiences Summer. 

If you were to arise at dawn every day of the year and record at which point on the horizon the sun rises from you would be able to track the progression from the Summer solstice (in which the sun rises furthest North) to the Winter Solstice (in which the sun rises furthest South) and back again.  Tracking the position of the rising sun was one of the earliest astronomical observations.  Many ancient monuments were constructed to act as solar observatories, recording the longest and shortest days of the year. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Upcoming Events (January - March 2018)

I am leading or hosting several upcoming events for the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy.  I have been involved with the CWC as a volunteer for approximately five years - leading field trips, performing stewardship, and participating in biological surveys.  In March of this year I was asked to join the organization's Board of Directors.  I am still leading trips, just under a different capacity.

New Year's Day Sunrise Hike (Monday 01 January 2018)

Join me on Monday January 1st at 7:30AM at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Bundy Hill Preserve for a sunrise hike to start the new year.  Bundy Hill is the highest point in Isabella County - this event is timed to have us on the crest when the sun passes over the horizon.  This event is free but participants are asked to register in advance.  Please visit the CWC website for more information on this event.

New Year's Day Moonlight Hike (Monday 01 January 2018)

After beginning the day with a hike, end the first day of the new year with a second hike.  Join me at the CWC's Sylvan Solace Preserve at 9:00PM for a moonlight hike.  Hiking under a full moon is an exciting way to explore the winter woods!  Like the previous hike, the event is free and participants are asked to register in advance.  More information on this event including a registration form can be found here.

Winter Animal Tracking (Saturday 03 January 2018)

The CWC's third outdoor hike of the year will take place on Saturday February 3rd at 10:00AM at the Halls Lake Natural Area.  Join us as we search for tracks, scat, and other animal signs.  For more information and to preregister visit this event page.

Because some people may find it difficult to participate in hikes, we wanted to have a few events at an indoor venue that can be attended by people of all ability levels.  The next two events will take place at the Veterans Memorial Library at 301 S. University in Mt. Pleasant. 

Logging History of Michigan (Wednesday 28 February 2018)

Join me for my program on Michigan's historic logging era of the late 19th and early 20th century.  This presentation will focus on the tools and processes required to get logs from the woods to the mills.  This program will begin at 7:00PM in the Library Annex.  More information is available on the CWC website.

Spring Wildflowers (Wednesday 28 March 2018)

The last event on the current schedule is my presentation on spring wildflowers of Mid-Michigan.  This program will focus on some of the common species that can be found in the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's preserves (and across Mid-Michigan) during the months of March, April, and May.  This program begins at 7:00PM in the Library Annex.  Like all the previous events, admission to this event is free, but donations to the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy are always welcome.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Layers of a forest

I spend a lot of time drawing during some of my classroom programs.  I draw to illustrate key concepts such as food chains and trophic levels.  I draw to show the parts of plants and animals.  I draw to show students what they are expected to do on activity sheets.   I draw to explain things in a way that I cannot with words alone.

I especially draw during my program on forest habitats.  During this program I usually end up drawing an entire forest from the tops of the trees on down to the soil beneath our feet.  Sometimes these drawings are done on whiteboards with dry-erase markers.  Other times those drawings are done on paper and projected via a document camera to an interactive whiteboard.  I never take these drawings with me.

Last Wednesday (13 DEC) I didn't have any school programs;  I decided to draw the layers of a forest and scan the drawings so I can access them any time I want.  Here are the drawings.

First up is the canopy.  The canopy is made up of the tallest mature trees in the forest.  Here in Mid-Michigan the canopy begins 20 to 30 feet off the ground and extends upwards to a height of 50 - 100 feet (or more) above the ground.  Some canopy trees include Red, Silver and Sugar Maples; Red and White Oaks; Green, White, and Black Ash; some Willows; Basswood; White and Red Pines;  Balsam Fir; Paper Birch; Hickories; etc..

Forest Canopy

Beneath the canopy is a second layer of trees known as the understory.  The understory is composed of two groups of trees.  Some trees in the understory are immature canopy trees - these trees are waiting for a space to open up in the canopy when a mature tree dies or falls over.  Other understory trees will never take a place in the canopy.  Instead, they have evolved to live in the shade provided by the canopy - making due with less sunlight.  Some trees in this category include Nannyberry, Hornbeams, Striped Maple, Speckled Alder, Redbud, etc..  Most of these trees top out at a maximum height of 15 to 30 feet.

Forest Canopy and Understory

Below the understory is a third layer of woody plants known as shrubs.  Unlike trees that have a single dominant trunk, shrubs typically branch out right at ground level.  Sometimes these branches droop enough to make contact with the ground and develop new roots.  Shrubs are often wider than they are tall.  Shrubs range in height from a few inches to about 15 feet.  Native shrubs in Mid-Michigan include Dogwoods, American Fly Honeysuckle, Witch Hazel, Winterberry, Spicebush, and more.

Forest Canopy, Understory, and Shrubs

Beneath the shrub layer we come to a layer of herbaceous plants.  Herbaceous plants are those plants that lack a woody stem such as ferns, grasses, wildflowers, and moss.  These plants range in height from less than an inch in height to about 10 feet - without a woody stem, it is very difficult for these plants to support their own weight above a certain height.  The majority of these species are below our eye-level.  Some of the more well-known herbaceous plants include Trilliums, Lilies, Sunflowers, Asters, and many more.  There are hundreds of species that fit in this category.

Lack of sunlight is a major challenger for herbaceous plants in a forest ecosystem.  The trees and shrubs above them my block as much as ninety-five percent of available light during the growing season.  To overcome this shortage, many herbaceous plants have developed strategies to ensure that they receive adequate sunlight to meet their energy needs.  Some species have evolved to make due with less sunlight.  A few species have developed into parasites that meet their energy needs by stealing sugars from other plants.  Many species have evolved to complete their annual cycle of growth and reproduction in early spring before the canopy leaves have fully developed, ensuring that their own energy needs are met while sunlight is readily available.

Forest Canopy, Understory, Shrubs, and Herbaceous Plants

We have finally come to the forest floor.  In a healthy forest, the forest floor is covered with a layer of organic debris including leaves, small branches (fine woody debris), and large branches and logs (coarse woody debris).  This layer of debris is filled with trillions of organisms working to break down all of this organic matter.  This includes invertebrate animals feeding on the debris and fungi and bacteria decomposing everything that is left.  Without the work of these decomposers the nutrients trapped in the organic debris would be unavailable for uptake by the layers of plants.

Forest Canopy, Understory, Shrubs, Herbaceous Plants, and Floor

Finally we come to a layer that we think very little of and know even less about - the subterranean layer.  This layer is composed of organic (the decomposed remains of living organisms) and mineral soils (rock that has broken down to the size of sand particles or smaller) with larger pieces of rock included in the mix.  This layer of soil may be only a few centimeters deep or may extend hundreds of feet deep before reaching the underlying bedrock.  The top couple of feet of soil are usually criss-crossed with an interlocking web of roots from trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.  The mycelium of fungi add their own root-like structures.  In addition to roots, this hidden world is home to untold numbers of invertebrate animals and bacteria.

Forest Canopy, Understory, Shrubs, Herbaceous Plants, Floor, and Subterranean Layers

The old saying "can't see the forest for the trees" is used to describe someone who gets so involved in details that they cannot see the big picture.  In a forest it is easy to look at the trees and fail to see that they are part of a much larger complex system.  Hopefully this article has helped you learn to "see the forest".

Monday, December 11, 2017

Upcoming Event - Chippewa Valley Audubon Club Member Sharing Night (13 December 2017)

Due to weather the CVAC meeting for 13 DEC 2017 was cancelled.

Join the Chippewa Valley Audubon Club this Wednesday (13 DEC) for the Club's regular monthly meeting.  The meeting will begin at 7:00PM at the Veterans Memorial Library at 301 S. University Avenue in Mt. Pleasant. 

This month's meeting is the Club's annual Club Member Sharing Night.  Club members are invited to share photographs, artwork, and other memorabilia highlighting their year in the outdoors.  I plan on sharing a dozen photos.  Some of these photos were taken locally, others date to our vacation in the Dakotas.  Here is a sneak peak of one of the images...

Summer Rainstorm along Interstate 90, South Dakota (30 June 2017)

Native Species Profile - Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Most people don't understand birders.  The idea of going birding (looking for and recording bird sightings) is seen as odd a lot of people.  Why would you go looking for birds - birds are just there.  They're around us every day - they are so common that they fade into the background and become part of the scenery.

Despite my other nature obsessions, I will admit that I don't bird (the verb).  It takes a lot of bird (the noun) to get me excited enough to go bird (the verb).  One of he few species that excites the general public (and me) enough to go birding is the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus).  A Snowy Owl is not so much a bird (the noun) as it is an event.

Snowy Owl - Isabella County, MI (December 2014)

The winter of 2017 - 2018 looks to be a big year for fans of the Snowy Owl.  There have already been dozens of sighting of Snowy Owls in Michigan and birds have been reported as far south as Missouri and Virginia.  Some years the population of Snowy Owls moves southward in large numbers during the winter months.  This movement is known as an irruption - the last big irruption was in 2013 and 2017-18 looks like it will be even bigger.

The exact cause of irruptions is not well known.  It may be tied to downswing in the population of Arctic lemmings, the owls major food source.  When lemming populations fall, birds must come south to find enough food.  it may also be related to upswings in lemming population - more lemmings available during the breeding season means more young birds survive to adulthood. When there are more owls in the Arctic some of them must come south to find enough food.  I tend to believe this latter explanation because a large percentage of the irrupting Snowy Owls tend to be immature birds.

One of the reason Snowy Owls are so exciting is that they are large birds.  They measure 20 to 28 inches long and have wingspans of 49 to 57 inches.  As is typical of raptors, females are usually larger than males.  The Snowy Owl is the heaviest owl species in North America weighing 3.5 to 6.5 pounds; the Great Horned Owl, Mid-Michigan's largest resident owl weighs an average of 2.0 to 5.5 pounds.

Snowy Owls are primarily white.  Females and immature birds will have dark brown or black barring on the wings, back, and chest.  Mature males are pure white or nearly so.  Both male and female birds have bright yellow eyes

Another reason that Snowy Owls are so exciting is the fact that they are diurnal.  This means that they are active during the daytime.  Combined with the fact that they prefer open areas such as fields to wooded areas and they become easy to find.  (I say easy to find, but in January of this year it took us three trips to find one of several that had been reported nearby for weeks.)  Snowy Owls often rest on the ground - their native tundra has few trees and the birds are used to perching on the ground.  Birds that are part of the irruption often perch on utility poles so they can better see their surrounding.

Snowy Owl - Gratiot County, MI (January 2017)

Basic Information

Snowy Owl
Bubo scandiacus

Habitat:  Arctic tundra; birds may overwinter in the Continental United States, over-wintering birds usually found in open areas such as fields, prairies, airports, golf courses

Size:  20 - 28 inches long with a 49 - 57 inch wingspan, females are typically larger than males

Diet:  small mammals, birds

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Story of a Log (as told in pictures)

Last Wednesday (29 November), I posted several pictured from Mill Pond Park.  One of the photos showed a log partially submerged in a creek.  I mentioned that I had photographed the same location multiple times in the past.

Here is the picture that I posted last week.

The image from last week

Looking back in my files, the oldest image that I can find of this location is one that dates from either 2005 or 2006.  I'm not exactly sure of the date of this picture.  It was photographed on 35mm film and scanned at a later date.  I like all of the angular lines in this picture - the branches, the creek, the reflections in the water.

 Spring 2005 or 2006 (scanned image)

This scene became one of my favorite recurring photography sites.  This next picture is from December 2008.  By this time I had converted to a digital camera.  I like the interplay of dark branches and shadows with the bright snow and sky.  I also like the sunburst coming from between the branches in the upper left.

December 2008

The next image is from January 2010 - another winter day.  The light in this image is not as good as the one above.  It looks like it was pretty much a grey winter day, but I still like the lines of the tree and the contrasting snow.

January 2010

The next picture that I could find dates to May 2013.  By this time the tree has died and fallen across the stream.  It has been dead long enough for the bark to have fall from the trunk and most of the branches.   In this image I like the vibrant green grass and its contrast to the muddy brown water of the creek.

May 2013

By January 2017 the tree had decayed enough that many of the branches had fallen away from the trunk.  Given enough time invertebrates and fungi would have continued their work of breaking down this tree and its remains would have turned into soil.

January 2017

This process was disrupted by the heavy rainfall that hit mid-Michigan in June 2017.  Approximately 11 inches of rain fell in less than 72 hours, causing the Chippewa River to reach its highest levels in thirty years.  Flood waters filled the floodplain lifting this trunk from its location along the creek.  When the water receded, the trunk was carried closer to the river before snagging in the creek where it rests today.

November 2017

Monday, December 4, 2017

Five field guides for holiday gift giving (2017 edition)

Hi, I'm Mike and I have a problem with field guides.  I simply cannot resist the pull of  a new guide.  Birds?  I have guides.  Trees?  I have guides for those too.  Flowers?  Lord, do I have guides for flowers!  Insects?  Not just general guides to insects - I have guide dedicated to bees, aquatic insects, and beetles.  (I love beetles!)  Lichens?  Who has a field guide for lichens?  Um, I do...  Actually, I know I have at least two lichen field guides.

Like I said, I have a problem.

In 2016 I wrote a series of posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) about some of my favorite field guides that I thought would make good Christmas gifts .  Here is an update for 2017.

1.  Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great lakes Region, Revised Edition by James H Harding and David A. Mifsud (ISBN 9780472073382)

This is not a new field guide.  The original edition came out in 1997.  Even if you own the older edition, go out and buy this field guide.  It has more photographs and updated (color) maps.  This book was published by the University of Michigan Press and costs $24.95 (paperback).  When I found out that this edition was in the works, it immediately went on my to-buy list.

2.  Mammals of the Great lakes Region, Third Edition by Allen Kurta (ISBN 9780472053452)

This is another update of a previous addition.  Like Amphibians of the Great Lakes, this book was published by the University of Michigan Press.  It retails for $24.95 (paperback).  The key updates to this edition include color photographs and updated maps.  Another nice feature that I like in this book is that origin of each species' scientific name is described in detail.  Did I need to purchase the updated version of this guide?  No, but I think it was worth the cost.  If you live in the Great Lakes region I definitely recommend this book.

3.  Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest:  A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms by Teresa Marrone and Kathy Yerich (ISBN 9781591934172)

Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest is not a new book.  It was published in 2014 by Adventure Publications.  This book is one of an entire series of small pocket sized guides.  Some of the books that I have in this series include wildflowers, trees, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals,  Limited in scope, these are great books for beginners.

I like that this book lists many of the common edible and toxic mushrooms that can be found locally.  As always, I caution anyone against relying on a single source for information on edible mushrooms - Mistakes can be deadly!

4.  Bark:  A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech (ISBN 9781584658528)

This another book that is not new.  Bark was published in 2011 by the University Press of New England.  I have been aware of this book for several years, but have never come across it in a store until this year.  I most tree field guides, bark is an afterthought.  There might be a short description for each species, or even a single picture of the bark of a mature tree.  In this book, bark is the star.  There are photographs of bark at various stages of a tree's life - young, mature, and old trees.  Although this book is not specific to the Midwest/Great Lakes there are enough common species to make it worth purchasing.

5.  Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer by DeLorme (ISBN 9780899334424)

Okay, this one is not a field guide.  Instead it is guide that gets you into the field.  I currently own three different editions of this guide.  Whenever we go on vacation to another state, I am likely to buy the DeLorme Atlas for that state.  I know off the top of my head that we own copies for Maine, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin (at a minimum).  These guides are so much more than road maps.  They show waterfalls, geologic sites, museums, scenic drives, lighthouses, hiking trails, and much more.  There are many places that I would never have visited if I hadn't found them in a DeLorme Atlas.