Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas 2018!


Merry Christmas!

It's not a very white Christmas here in Mid-Michigan, but it is a Merry one nonetheless!

I got some warm socks, waterproof notebooks, and a new field guide (plus a bunch of other cool stuff) - I'm ready to get outdoors!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Celebrating a (Solar) New Year

On January 1st, much of the world will be celebrating the new year, but this Friday might be a more appropriate day to celebrate (at least from an astronomical viewpoint).

This Friday (22 December 2018) marks the Winter Solstice, the date on which the calendar changes seasons from Fall to Winter here in Mid-Michigan (and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere).  Winter will officially begin at 5:23 PM EST.

The word solstice comes from two Latin root words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).  On the solstice, the path of the sun appears to stand still! 

Assume that you were to awaken every morning before dawn and mark the location that the sun rises on the eastern horizon.  You would notice that the sun does not in fact arise from the same place every day.  Instead it wanders north and south along the horizon, moving north during the Winter and Spring and back south again during the Summer and Fall.  On the Summer Solstice (June 21st) and Winter Solstice (December 21st), the sun ceases to move further along the horizon, appearing to "stand still" before reversing its course the next day.

You have probably already noticed in addition to the location of the rising sun, the length of day and night vary throughout the year.  As the sun progresses south, the day shortens and the night lengthens.  The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day (and longest night) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  Here in Mid-Michigan we will mark the date with approximately 8 hours 57 minutes of daylight.  As the sunrise moves back north along the horizon our days will slowly get longer until on the Summer Solstice we will experience nearly 15 hours 25 minutes of daylight.

Why does the sun move and the length of day vary?

It all has to do with a tilt in the Earth's axis.  The Earth rotates on its axis approximately once every 24 hours - giving us the length of our day.  It also revolves around the sun approximately once every 365 days - the length of our year.  If the Earth's axis was perpendicular the plane on which it revolves around the sun, our days would be the same length throughout the year (approximately 12 hours), but the axis is not perpendicular to this plane.  Instead the Earth's axis tilts 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.

On two days of the year, the Earth's axis is perpendicular to the plane of its revolution.  On those two days we do experience equal periods of day and night because the sun rises due east and sets due west.  During the rest of the year our hours of daylight vary depending on where the axis is pointed.  During our summer months, the tilt in the axis means that the northern hemisphere is closer to the sun and receives more hours of sunlight.  During the winter months, the reverse is true.  On the Winter Solstice, the North Pole is tilted at its furthest angle from the sun resulting in the shortest day (and longest night) of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.

Why did I say that the Winter Solstice would be a better day to celebrate the new year?

Tracking the position of the rising sun was among the first astronomical observations.  Many ancient monuments seem to have been constructed as solar observatories, aligned with the locations of sunrise and sunset on the longest and shortest day of the year.  To early agricultural societies especially, tracking the seasons accurately could mean the difference between a bountiful harvest and failure of a year's crops.  The day that the sun "stood still" in its southward journey and then began to return north, bringing more hours of daylight and eventually warmer weather seems such an obvious point to mark the beginning of a new year!

Join me on a hike to celebrate the Solstice!

To celebrate the Winter Solstice, I am leading a nighttime hike at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Sylvan Solace Preserve.  This hike will begin at 7:00PM.  Sylvan Solace Preserve is located on Pickard Road, between Gilmore Road and Littlefield Road, approximately 8 miles west of downtown Mt. Pleasant.

We are doing a nighttime hike because another celestial event lines up with the solstice this year - a full moon.  (Technically the full moon will be on December 22nd, but it will be more than 97% illuminated on the night of the 21st.)  We are expecting light snowfall early in the day - this should brighten up the woods.  Hopefully the moon will peek through the expected clouds and illuminate our hike.  The trails at Sylvan Solace are flat and well-defined making this a great first night hiking experience!  I hope to do the hike without any artificial lights.  Wear warm clothes and bring a headlamp or flashlight just to be safe.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Upcoming Event - Wildlife Weekend (01 - 03 February 2019)

Last week I shared a list of twelve holiday gifts to get for the outdoor kid in your life.  Here is a gift idea for the adult nature-lover (including yourself)!

The Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) is hosting its inaugural Wildlife Weekend at the Ralph A. MacMullen Conference Center at North Higgins Lake State Park from Friday February 1st, 2019 to Sunday February 3rd, 2019.

Wildlife Weekend allows you to become an expert.  Pick from one of two course options Mammal Mania or Michigan, My Michigan.

Here are the course descriptions from the MAEOE website:

Mammal Mania: Why is a weasel shaped differently than a rabbit?  How does a black bear’s teeth differ from a deer?  Are there coyotes in your backyard? Wolves?  Mountain Lions?  Your answers to all these questions, and many more, will be discovered as we explore Michigan’s fuzziest neighbors.  You will be amazed at how many of our mammalian brethren live in your neck in the woods.  Discover why you seldom see them and how to look for signs of their presence.  Investigate mammal pelts, skulls, and tracks.  Learn how to make a “scent post track trap”, and develop a better understanding of Michigan’s mammals.

Michigan, My Michigan: So, you think you know your state?  Whether your interest is forests, fields, fins, feathers or furs, this overview of Michigan’s natural resources will make you the neighborhood expert in all things “Pure Michigan”.  A dab of conservation history, a smattering of species profiles, a drop of Great Lakes education and a pinch of resource management make a great recipe for an educational and entertaining course.  A glance into Michigan’s future and virtual tour of lighthouses, shipwrecks, waterfalls, and rivers are all included.  Find out what makes the Great Lakes state…Great!

The cost for attending the Wildlife Weekend is $295 (MAEOE members receive a $20 discount). This cost includes lodging and six meal (Friday dinner through Sunday lunch). I have stayed at the MacMullen Conference Center numerous times and the food is excellent (and plentiful)! The accommodations are dorm style with a pair of beds in each rooms and shared baths down the hall.

For more information and to register check out the MAEOE website.

Why is MAEOE offering this program? MAEOE's vision is "promoting environmental literacy through education." MAEOE has the mission to "serve as the statewide network and advocate for professionals who are education Michigan citizens toward environmental literacy, stewardship, and outdoor recreation." Most members of MAEOE are formal and non-formal educators, but there is nothing that says a MAEOE member must be in the education field. Ideally every citizen of Michigan would care about environmental literacy, stewardship, and outdoor recreation. By offering this opportunity to everyone, MAEOE is trying to expand the pool of individuals that teach about and advocate for the environment.

Why am I promoting this opportunity? Well, I have been a member of MAEOE for nearly a decade. I am currently serving the third year of a three-year term on the MAEOE board of directors. My experience with MAEOE has been rewarding both on the personal and professional level. I would love to see every educator I know attend this event, but I would also like to see people from other walks of life there. MAEOE would also benefit by having non-educators becoming involved in the organization as they bring new perspective and a great deal of knowledge with them. Some of the most environmentally literate people that I know have never spent a single day working as an educator. Above all, I just think that any nature lover would enjoy this experience!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Twelve holiday gift ideas for the outdoor kid in your life

It's that time of year when people think a lot about giving or receiving gifts.  Every magazine and website seems to put out an annual list of the top ten gifts (toys/tech/games/etc.).  I have my own list, but it's a little different.  The most fun I see kids have all year is when I turn them loose to explore a woods or a pond.  My list is focused on items to help kids explore.  Without further ado, here is my top twelve list of gifts for kids for this year (or any year).

I originally came up with this list in 2013, but have added two items and updated prices and links for 2018.  This list also works great for adults, but you might want to upgrade the first four items to adult sizes!

Getting Outdoors

Despite all the talk of  the disconnect between children and nature, most kids still love to explore the outdoors.  They just need to have the tools to make it more enjoyable. 

1.  Rubber boots - Having cold wet feet is no fun.  Nothing can ruin a day in the outdoors faster.  Rubber boots also let you explore puddles and the edges of ponds.  Knee high boots are best as they let your kid explore deeper puddles.  These boots do not have to be expensive.   My advice is to skip the ones with cartoons characters and get the plain black or green ones.  Look for a pair at around $15 at Walmart or your local farm and home center. 

2.  Wool socks - Pair the rubber boots with the right socks and they are suitable for year round wear in all but the coldest weather.  Socks are one item where its best to splurge - buy the best wool socks you can find.  I like socks from Darn Tough, SmartWool, and Farm to Feet, but several other brands are just as good.  Expect to pay $10 to $15 - trust me they are worth the extra cost!

3.  Waterproof Jacket/Rain Suit -  I love being out in the rain.  Everything seems so much different when it rains.  Rain softens the ground and quiets sounds,. Animals often hold tight in the rain. Worms come up out of the ground.  Tiny streams form and cascade.  In my mind there is nothing better than exploring a woods on a rainy day, but I hate having wet clothes.  A pair of rubber boots and a good rain suit opens up new worlds for exploration.  Try this set for around $30. 

Tools for Exploring

So the kids are outside, what are they going to do now?  Getting outdoors is more fun when you have the tools to explore!

4.  Headlamp - Don't limit your kids' explorations to daytime hours.  Nighttime is exciting because it holds mysteries.  Most kids love exploring the dark because its just a little scary- you want them to be safe.  A good headlamp helps.  Try this one designed for kids.  It's about $15, but can often be found cheaper.

5.  Aquatic Dip Net - One of my favorite things to do is to look for aquatic invertebrates.  What kid doesn't want to see what is swimming around in the water?  The tool needed for that is a good net.  This is not a place to skimp on price - that cheap butterfly net from the local big box store will not last long.  I like these adjustable nets from Acorn Naturalists. At $27.95 this is one of the most expensive things on my list.

6.  Insect Net - Sometimes I would rather look toward the sky than the mud.  I have yet to meet a kid that was not interested in catching butterflies, dragonflies, or other flying insects.  You need a large net with a long handle.  Again I like a net from Acorn Naturalists - another big purchase item at $24.95.  A nice thing about these nets is that parts can be replaced if they are ever damaged.

Once the kids have caught something they will need a place to put it so it can be observed.  There is no need to get fancy here.  A cleaned out clear plastic or glass jar (peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, etc.) will work just fine for any invertebrate (or even frogs, snakes, and salamanders for a short time).  A five gallon bucket is great for dumping your dip net into.  Ice cube trays and wash basins are prefect for observing aquatic creatures.  Sometimes, a closer view is desired.

7.  Magnifying Glass - Any magnifying glass will do.  They can be found at any drug store, big box store, or even many dollar stores. 

Identifying and Recording 

The kids are outside and exploring.  They have TONS of questions! They want to show you everything! 

8.  Guide Books - There are dozens of great guide books on every nature subject.  Peterson First Guides are great options for kids.  The Peterson Guides are such a bargain at under $8.00 each that you can afford to buy more than one.

9.  Note Book/Sketch Book - Having a place to write or draw pictures of what is found is a favorite of many kids (and adults).  A simple wirebound notebook will do, or good blank books can usually be found in the bargain sections of bookstores for a few dollars.  Even a stack of printer paper and a clipboard will work for this.

10.  Colored Pencils - Splurge on the Crayolas.  They are really that much better than the other cheap brands and at under $6.00 for a 50-pack, they might be the best deal on this list.

11.  Pencil Sharpener - A good colored pencil deserves to be sharpened with a good portable sharpener.  I purchased several of this style from Staedtler for students to use.  They are worth the $6.29 price tag. 

10. A cheap Digital Camera - This is the only thing on my list that requires batteries.  It will also require some sort of memory card to store pictures.  Good used cameras can often be found on craigslist.  (Right now Target has this model on sale for under $20!)  A digital camera is a great tool for the budding naturalist it is a great complement to (not a replacement for) the sketch book.  One advantage of the digital camera is that it reproduces a true to life image of those things that cannot be identified in the field so they can be looked up later. There is the additional cost of a memory card, but those can be found for under $10 and often go on sale.

There is my list of twelve things that every kid should have on their Christmas list.  Even if you bought everything on that list, total cost should still come in at under $200 (before any shipping costs).  Leave off any two of the four most expensive items (camera & memory card, nets, and rain suit) and cost comes in under $100.  Twenty-five dollars (or less) will buy a field guide, sketch book, colored pencils, and pencil sharpener - this will make a great start toward a lifetime of studying nature. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Of scattering abroad...

This morning I had a little bit of time free after giving a program at Fancher Elementary.  I hadn't been out in the woods for a few days do I decided to head to Chipp-A-Waters Park and walk the trails.  I didn't have plan, I just wanted to get outdoors and take a few pictures.  Almost immediately I noticed a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with a few seeds still hanging to its dried out pods and nearby was Bitter Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) with its flattened seeds.  When I a bit further I noticed the fluffy seeds of a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and a Boxelder's (Acer negundo) winged samara.  At that point I had an idea - how many different fruits, seeds, or nuts could I find?

#1 - Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

#2 - Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

#3 - Bitter Dock (Rumex obtusifolius)

#4 - Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

#5 - Boxelder (Acer negundo)

#6 Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)

#7 - Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora)

#8 - Buckthorn (Rhamnus sp.)

#9 - Common Burdock (Arctium minus)

#10 - Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

#11 - Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)

#12 - Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.)

#13 - Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendrom radicans)

#14 Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)

#15 - Orange-fruited Horse-Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum)

#16 - Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

#17 - Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)

#18 - American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)

#19 - Black Locust (Robina pseudoacacia)

I spent barely thirty minutes in the park.  My first photograph was taken at 10:46AM and my final photograph was at 11:16AM.  Of the nineteen species that I photographed, seven are not native to Michigan.  Of those seven, five are considered invasive species.  To say that Chipp-A-Waters Park has an invasive species problem would be an understatement.  Birds readily consume the fruit of Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, and Japanese Barberry helping the species spread further.  Eventually, if nothing is done to stop their spread the wooded areas at Chipp-A-Waters Park will be completely overgrown with these species and many of the native species found there now will be choked out.

Is the situation hopeless?  No, of course not.  However it will take planning and effort to reduce and control the invasive species and encourage the native species found there.  

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Deer Season 2018

Today is opening day of the 2018 Michigan firearms deer season.  I wish all hunters a safe and successful season!

One of my favorite pieces of writing is about deer hunting (and life).  The following passage is from the book Hunting from Home: A Year Afield in the Blue Ridge Mountains by Christopher Camuto (ISBN 978-0393049152).

One November the hunter will not be in the woods and neither the deer nor the woods nor the wind will know or mark the difference his absence makes.  If you hunt, and if you have taken your modest share of game--not as trophies but as food for your table--then you will understand the beauty in the thought of that unmarked difference in the woods.  Folks who are on their way to heaven or some other imagined paradise where the true cost of living does not have to be paid won't understand or accept this.  But I am not trying to get to heaven.  I am trying to get to earth.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Happy Veterans Day 2018

Dan Wixson (left), Stan Lilley (center), and me (right) atop Bundy Hill - photo by Stan Lilley

Happy Veterans Day! 

Veterans Day is a celebration of all former members off the United States military.  Originally the holiday was known as Armistice Day and was used to commemorate those who served in World War One.  The name of the holiday was officially changed in 1954 to commemorate all living veterans.  With the exception of seven years ( 1971 - 1977), Veterans Day has always been celebrated on November 11th. 

This year's Veterans Day marks a particularly important event, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One.  After four years of warfare, combat officially ceased on the Western Front on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (11:00AM local time on November 11th, 1918).  The event is being commemorated with ceremonies throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

I celebrated today with a sunrise hike at the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Bundy Hill Preserve.  I was joined on the hike by two fellow veterans.  Dan Wixson is a US Navy veteran (1982 - 1988).  Stan Lilley served in the US Army (1968 - 1994).  I served on active duty in the US Army from 1997 to 2001 and then in the National Guard for a further three years.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

When the gales of November came early...

Today marks the 43rd Anniversary of the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the most famous shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

On the evening of 10 November 1975, the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was approaching Whitefish Point, MI with a full load of taconite (iron ore) in a Lake Superior storm.   Despite the hurricane force winds, the 729 foot ship did not appear to be under distress before it sank suddenly at 7:10 PM.  All twenty-nine men aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald perished.  To this day, the exact cause of the ship's sinking is unknown, but a rogue wave (or series of rogue waves) is the prime suspect.

 The ship was commemorated by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".

The wreck site was visited by dive teams in 1989, 1995, and 1995 to survey the site and collect artifacts.  The ship's bell was recovered during the 1995 dive.  The bell was restored and now rests at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, MI. For more information on the Edmund Fitzgerald visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Although the Edmund Fitzgerald is the Great Lakes' most famous shipwreck, 1975 was not the first time that "the gales of November" turned deadly.  A November storm in 1913 claimed the lives of approximately 250 sailors, sank 12 ships, and foundered approximately 30 more ships across the Great Lakes.  This massive storm which lasted for nearly five days became known as the "Big Blow" or the "White Hurricane' among other names.

On 11 November 1940, a storm known as the "Armistice Day Blizzard" sank three freighters in Lake Michigan with the loss of 66 lives.  The same storm caused the deaths of dozens of duck hunters along the Mississippi River.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Early November in the (mostly) native pollinator garden

The growing season is almost over for the year.  Most of the native plants in our home gardens have begun to go dormant.  However, a few are still green - packing away more sugars in their roots to get a jump on next year .  One or two plants are still throwing up a bloom now and then.  The gardens are still a riot of colors, but now they are the subdued colors of fall and not the brilliant flowers of summer.  The biggest theme of the season though is "seeds" - pretty much every species is covered with seeds waiting to be dispersed by animals or by the wind. 

Over the next few months most of the plants will be knocked down by a combination of decay and heavy snows.  The plants that remain in the spring will be trimmed down near ground level.  I don't trim plants in the fall because they provide cover for hibernating insects and the seeds provide food for birds.  Those seeds that the birds don't get will be deposited into the soil to grow into more plants.  The leaves and stalks that fall to the ground form a natural mulch and eventually decay back into the soil - adding a healthy layer of rich organic humus.  I also allow all the leaves that fall into the gardens to remain and don't rake away the leaves that fall on the lawn.  I mulch those up with the mower and allow them to stay on the lawn - it's free fertilizer!

My work in the garden is not entirely done for the year.  I still need to plant a couple hundred tulip and crocus bulbs before the ground freezes.  I love the spring flowering bulbs - they're why I refer to the garden as a (mostly) native pollinator garden.

Here's a few pictures from this evening.

The garden at the back of the house

High-bush cranberries

Blue-stemmed Goldenrod seeds

Tall Coreopsis leaves turn a deep red

Rudbeckia triloba isn't doon yet!

Big-leaf Aster seeds

New England Aster seedheads surround our Monarch Waystation sign

Butterflyweed seeds
The view from the street corner

Northern Maidenhair Fern surrounded by fall leaves

Fertile fronds from one of several species of ferns

Japanese maples have finally started to drop their deep red leaves

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Pumpkin-spice massacre

Halloween was last week, but when I came home yesterday I found a gruesome sight on my front steps.  It looked like the scene of horror film, with guts strewn everywhere and a pair of hollowed out corpses flanking the steps.

The victims of the massacre?  Pumpkins.

The perpetrators?  Squirrels.

Every year we put pumpkins on our porch as a fall decoration and every year the squirrels chew on them.  This year the squirrels have gotten much more industrious and have completely hollowed out two of the four pumpkins (so far).  The squirrels are not eating the flesh of the pumpkins at all - it is all about the seeds. 

I expect that when I get home tonight I will find that the other two pumpkins have also been hollowed out and all of the seeds nibbled upon.

Our squirrels are industrious and will take advantage of any food available to themI intend to plant several hundred tulip bulbs in our flower gardens this weekend and I expect the squirrels to take their toll on those as well.  

I just wish that they would have left the pumpkins alone until after Thanksgiving...

Monday, November 5, 2018

Birch bark Canoe Build (Part 4)

The birch bark canoe build at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways (6650 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant) was completed on last week when its seams were fully covered with a mixture of spruce pitch, charcoal, and bear grease.  The goal of this event not just to build a canoe, but also to keep the knowledge and teaching related to canoe- building alive in the community.  

I was unable to be there while they completed applying and smoothing the pitch on the seams.  However, I did get to the Ziibiwing Center on Thursday (01 November) to get some pictures of the completed canoe.

The bow and stern were decorated with etching.

This section of the hull had a hole that needed to be patched.

Every seam and other possible leak has been sealed with pitch

Hardwood pegs hold the gunwale caps in place

The final product, waiting for launch.

The Tribe does not want this new canoe to be a museum piece.  Instead they want it to have a life and be used.  Consequently, there is going to be a launching ceremony this Saturday (10 November) at the Soaring Eagle Hideaway RV Park (5514 E. Airport Rd, Mt. Pleasant).  The event will begin at 10:00AM at the Ziibiwing Center.  Details are listed in the flier below.