August 10, 2012
Heading Down the River
A great naturalist told me that a wonderful quality of nature is that “it’s always different, but it’s always the same.” The statement confused me at first with its obvious conundrum, but I stepped back, looked a little deeper, and saw the beauty in the contradiction.
Take the Huron River, that lifeblood of water that flows through southeast Michigan and joins so many of our Metroparks. Every time I step on one particular wooden bridge that spans the river at Indian Springs I scan the banks and never fail to find something new. It could be fresh mink tracks, or the dance of ebony jewelwing damselflies above the mud, or the first signs of spawning pike in five years. Or even something simple like a single marsh marigold petal trapped in a twirling eddy.
Indian Springs... where the Huron River finds its source.
But the calm of the site, the rush of the water, the simple existence of that wonderful river just a few short miles from its swampy source – it’s always there, always the same in a fundamental kind of way. Even when it’s trickling by at a ten- or even thirty-year low, it still flows. It still nourishes. And barring some drastic act by man or the elements at a landscape level, it will still be there.
Always different, but always the same.
Oakwoods, where it runs swift and deep.
People, however, change. The Indian Springs blog has been slow as of late because I, myself, have been travelling down river. I’ve been transferred to the southern district of Metroparks, to Oakwoods and Lake Erie. I leave this wonderful park of my childhood, Indian Springs (and it's blog!), in the capable hands of my coworkers. I’ll miss it, but I know it will still be here for people to enjoy, always with something new to offer, but always, fundamentally, a wonderful intersection of river and swamp forest and wide open fields.
And if you’ve enjoyed my writing over the past few years, look for me on the Oakwoods Metropark and Lake Erie Metropark blogs. I have new places to explore, new things to discover, and new people to share the parks with. I’ll look forward to seeing you there!
And Lake Erie, where it finally joins the Great Lakes.
June 28, 2012
The Tiger and the Tortoise
Pick a hot summer day. Come out to Indian Springs and take a walk down the sun-dappled Woodland Trail. Choose a spot where the green-tinted shade from maple and basswood leaves gives way to a pool of buttery sunlight lapping at the dry, sandy soil. Pause for a moment and let your eyes adjust to the flicker of sun and shadow at the sun-pool’s edge. It won’t take long, and by then you’ll realize you’re not alone. It’s lurking there, watching you… waiting. Seeing what you’ll do. The Tiger.
Some people pay thousands of dollars to visit Africa or Belize or other exotic locales to see striking, exotic animals. Amazing animals that they’ve never seen before, at least not with their own two eyes. I have dreams of these people visiting us at Indian Springs, giving us those thousands of dollars (it’s a dream, after all!), and letting us, in twenty minutes or so, show them a whole host of crazy, funky creatures that they’ve never seen before, not even on TV. Creatures like the tiger and the tortoise.
Make that the tiger and the tortoise beetle.
Everything about the six-spotted tiger beetle just screams predator. From its huge, sickle-shaped mandibles to its bulging, ever-open eyes and its elongated, powerful legs, each part of this insect works towards the hunt, the pounce and the kill. Other beetles crawl, scurry or scuttle. Tiger beetles sprint. Blow one up to human-size and this insect would easily be clocked at over 100 mph, and its acceleration is nearly instantaneous. Can you imagine running so fast that you outrun the very light travelling to your brain? Tiger beetles can. They accelerate so fast that they suffer from momentary blindness. Which is why they seem “jerky” as they hunt, continually stopping to re-position themselves and make sure they’re still heading toward their intended victim. Once they grab a hapless bug, they slice it, gnash it and literally liquefy it with jaws that put a tiger’s fangs to shame.
On the other side of the spectrum is the green tortoise beetle. Like its namesake, this insect has invested more in protection than in speed. All beetles have a tough exoskeleton. Also, their scientific order, Coleoptera, literally means “sheath wing.” Their forewings, called elytra in bug-speak, have become hardened “sheaths” or “shields” protecting the delicate, membranous hind wings they use for flying. Tortoise beetles take this to the extreme. Their elytra extend beyond the edges of their body like a shell and the hardened plate above their head and thorax, called the pronotum, is similarly oversized. Look closely at the pictures and you can see how this beetle can hunker down, pulling both its head and legs underneath its tough “tortoise” shell.
But this is just the beginning, only our first 20 minutes or so at Indian Springs. The earth is literally crawling with a skin of insects. So much so that only a small percentage of them have even been given names! I guarantee you could head outside right now, wherever you live, and flip over a couple rocks, inspect the undersides of a few leaves or sweep a net through a clump of tall grass and discover a creature whom you’ve never met before. It could be a tiger or a tortoise. Or it could be some other completely amazing insect. And this safari won’t cost you a cent!
May 28, 2012
A Moment of Silence for the Fallen
You can hear the terror in her voice as the predator swoops in on her young. You can’t understand the words, because there aren’t any human words in a mother robin’s language , but you can feel the pain and anguish in her voice as she watches the crow snatch one baby …and then another… from her nest, scarfing them down like so many Memorial Day hotdogs.
Spring is usually billed as the season of growth and new life, but it has a dark side, too. For every cute little springtime baby that survives to adulthood, there are several who don’t. This “dark side” kept rearing its ugly head at the Environmental Discovery Center these last few weeks, especially in the avian world. One of our bird programs began with the discovery of a raccoon-eaten wild turkey egg right outside our front door. A quick jaunt to the Discovery Pond uncovered a barn swallow egg, ejected from its nest on the side of the building and cracked and splattered across our deck. And then there was the red-winged blackbird nest.
Red-winged blackbirds make fiercely loyal parents. The mother birds weave these wonderfully camouflaged nests in the base of cattail clumps, and I’ve watched red-winged fathers chase away animals as large as turkey vultures, sandhill cranes and even curious people from their nesting area. We discovered one of these red-winged nest at the edge of our affectionately-named “muck pond” and I was looking forward to watching (from a distance!) these parents raise their young. That is, until I checked back the next day and found the entire nest cock-eyed, egg-less and shredded by a predator.
I was stunned and literally did a double-take. Could you imagine driving home from a day at the office to find your house a pile of rubble, only a small shoe left to remind you that you once had kids? Is that what it feels like to be these red-winged blackbirds? But I’m a naturalist, and I also know how important this moment was to some other creature. It went home, belly filled, to raise its own young. Nothing goes to waste. Absolutely nothing. Every creature returns, one way or another, to the belly of another, whether down the mouth of a predator or through the bodies of millions of tiny decomposers in the soil. The whole ecological system is built this way. It’s the single reason why so many animals have so many babies – and the lower you are on the food chain, the more babies you have. For a large mammal that only has a few children during its lifetime – that’s you and me! – it can be a deeply disturbing thought, no matter how true it is.
All is not lost. These robins successfully raised
three chicks on my balcony this year.
So it’s OK to feel sad for the missing babies of spring. Heck, it’s good to feel sad about loss. Empathy is part of what makes us human, that ability to feel into another’s heart, whether they’re a family member, a total stranger, or even a mother bird. And even though the losses of spring are part and parcel of an astonishingly good ecological system, I’ll end this post with a moment of silence for the fallen… for our own species, and for all of the birds and the bugs and the beasts, too.
May 10, 2012
Baby Turtle Invasion
The invaders were small but well-armored as they crept up the walk toward the Environmental Discovery Center and spread out into the surrounding landscape. We were ready for them this year... with our cameras! It was time for the annual “baby painted turtle invasion,” and some of the quarter-sized invaders even squeezed their way under the front entry doors and made their way into our lobby. I'm sure they would have much preferred one of the nearby wetlands, but with their tank-like persistence they may have been planning on heading down the stairs, squeezing under the rear exit doors and making a satisfying “plop” in the discovery pond just out back.
Our invasion started in mid-April, and we had a second batch of mini-turtles arrive over the last few days. But even though they’re crawling out of their nests now, these baby painters actually hatched last fall. Why, then, are we seeing them for the first time in April and May? Because, in Michigan, just about all of our newborn painted turtles spend their first winter in the place they know best – their eggshell!
Mama painters lay their eggs in relatively shallow, underground nests from late May to early July. These eggs “hatch” anywhere from two to three months later, but the babies usually hold tight and stay in the nest, and even inside the eggshell, through the cold winter months. By staying in the underground nest, the soil provides them with some insulation from winter’s chill, and a layer of snow on the ground can help keep the soil even warmer.
When the nest temperatures do drop below freezing, these hardy reptile babies survive sub-freezing temperatures by flooding their bodies with glucose and lactate – sugar and acid – which allow them to survive super-cooling. This means their body temperatures can drop several degrees below the freezing point without their tissues turning to ice. These turtle tikes can survive temperatures that would quickly turn other reptiles into chewy-centered popcicles.
Once the soil warms in the spring, these babies emerge... after being buried alive for almost a full year, if you count their entire “egg time.” And the sandy soil in front of the Environmental Discovery Center is prime painted turtle nesting real estate. So be on the watch for these wickedly-cute mini-turtles when you're visiting the EDC over the next few days. And keep your eyes open when you're visiting our underwater pond dome, too. A group of second-graders got to watch one swim right over the tunnel... followed by an entourage of investigating bluegill. Luckily this little turtle was just big enough to be a mere curiosity rather than a fish's meal!
April 16, 2012
A Snake of a Different Color
Every profession has it's own secret language. The naturalist field is no different. Try learning your birds by thumbing through a bird guide and you'll be faced with godwits and goatsuckers and dickcissels. My eight-year-old self thought, what the heck are these things? Do these names mean something? They were a little too obscure and esoteric for my young mind. Which may be why I turned my back on the birds and started with snakes.
A brown snake in its classic coloration, photo by Jim Harding
A smooth green snake is, in fact, both smooth and green. Flip over a red-bellied snake and you can count on that reddish belly being there. A ring-necked snake sports a snazzy little ring around its throat and an eastern hognosed snake has its scaly snout turned up like a pig's. A northern water snake will usually be found – you guessed it! – in or near the water and even the eastern garter snake (often mispronounced gardener snake, probably since it's the Michigan snake you're most likely to find in your garden, which would, as far as naming go, make perfect sense to any eight-year-old) sports three yellow stripes like a classic men's sock garter.
A beautiful brown snake who visited us this spring.
And a Dekay's snake... lives... where things are decaying... like, under leaf litter and in the dirt under logs, right? This made sense to my young mind, and it wasn't until later that I learned “Dekay” was the name of the American naturalist James Ellsworth Dekay, who was lucky enough to not only have a snake named after him, but to have a last name that sounds like “decay.” Totally cool. As a “Smith,” I was envious.
So when I first heard someone call the cool little Dekay's snake a “brown snake,” I wasn't sure how to react. My first thought was, well, that makes sense. The Dekay's snake is, in fact, brown. It's a little guy, only 8 to 18 inches long, hiding down in the mouldering leaf litter and feasting on worms, slugs and snails. Its earthy coloration provides excellent camouflage, and its small size allows it to go largely unnoticed by most people who are above the age of eight. And calling it a brown snake adds a simplicity that more bird namers could really aspire to.
But I felt a strange pang in my heart. Brown is descriptive, but Dekay's sounds cool. I had history with that name. Maybe making it simpler wasn't such a good idea. And for a brief second, I wondered if some birder out there felt a similar swoon in their heart whenever they heard the name “dickcissel.” It's possible. Birders can be pretty weird, after all.
Brown snake, or Dekay's snake? What do you think?
So while this snake is now officially the “brown snake,” I come bearing evidence that Dekay should not be forgotten. Look here! This is probably the coolest brown snake I've ever found (and I found my first brown snake ever right here, as an eight-year-old, in Indian Springs Metropark). I've never seen one with such a beautiful yellow-green coloration, and these pictures fail to capture the amazing iridescence of this creature. And it's most definitely not the classic brown! Not even close! Can we still call it a brown snake? Or is this still, truly, Dekay's snake? Maybe I should go ask a birder.
January 12, 2012
A Naked Giant
It was tricky spotting the giant at first. My eyes slid right past it to the surrounding tree trunks, gray and brown and mottled like the earth itself. It was only on the second glance that I picked out the giant’s unmistakable shape. This was largely on account of its nakedness, of course. An un-naked giant would have stuck out like a sore thumb no matter how it hid behind trees and brambles.
Car keys for scale... they don't actually grow like that.
Before you start thinking this Metropark has turned into some nudist colony for the big and tall, I should clarify that I’m talking about puffballs, of course. Giant puffballs. If you’ve ever seen one of these soccer ball sized mushrooms, you know why they bear the honor of being called “giant.” They’re the largest fruiting body of any mushroom in Michigan. That, and they’re easy to spot because they’re relatively white. This is, of course, before they get “naked.”
A naked puffball’s as yellowish-brown as the earth itself. I almost mistook this naked giant for a clump of dirt or a mole push-up at first glance. This late in the season, that whitish puffball skin has faded, cracked, and literally peeled away from the mushroom. The puffball’s interior, once a firm, milky white has become a dark, spongy mass chock full of spores.
Just like the whole point of an apple is to spread apple seeds (by having animals eat them and then poop them out somewhere else), the whole point of a puffball is to produce and spread a whole heck of a lot of puffball spores. To the tune of seven trillion or more, if you’re a decent-sized “giant” puffball. But spores, unlike apple seeds, don’t travel by feces. Instead, they “puff.”
Giant puffball spores are some of nature’s most perfect “kites.” In calm air, it can take a spore ten minutes to fall one foot. Throw in a little wind, and those seven trillion spores can practically travel the world over. So you’re actually doing the puffball a favor when you stomp it, pat it or pinch it and send a big plume of “spore smoke” flying. Less than one thousandth of one percent of those spores will actually land in a place good for growing more giant puffballs (lest we’d be up to our eyeballs in puffballs) but puffin’ them sure is fun, isn’t it?
I actually think giant puffballs have magical rejuvenating properties. The next time you see a good ripe one in late summer or fall or even winter (if it’s as snowless as this one), give it a puff… and see if you don’t feel about 8 years old again. But no matter how young it makes you feel, I’d recommend keeping the clothes on … at least in the park! Leave the nakedness to the giant.
December 28, 2011
A Snowy Irruption
With its piercing yellow eyes, brown-flecked-on-tundra-white coloration and thick-necked, barrel-chested profile the creature was unmistakable. My heart thumped in my chest as I stood in the wintry prairie, gazing at this massive white bird. And a question grew in my mind: what would bring a snowy owl, the first ever seen in our park, to Indian Springs?
It turns out 2011 is an irruptive year for snowy owls. An “eruption” sends molted magma shooting out of the earth. An “irruption” sends snowy owls from their arctic homeland down south across the northern United States. This irruption is usually tied to food. Lemmings make up the main part of the snowy owl diet. When these lemming populations drop, the owls, especially the younger ones, head south looking for a food supply.
However, the food issue seems a little different this year. Instead of too few lemmings in the fall and winter, there were tons of them in the spring. Which means more baby owls survived than would be normal. However, now that we're in the leaner winter months, the adults are territorial over their food supply, so the bumper crop of teenagers are heading south in droves looking for some space – and some lemmings – of their own.
We don't have lemmings at Indian Springs Metropark, but with our restored prairie and surrounding fields we have lots of tasty rodents and an open, tundra-like landscape that could make a young snowy owl feel at home for a little while. However, we've never seen one in our park before. It's not uncommon for them to make a guest appearance near Metro Beach or even show up on the wide-open runways at Detroit Metro Airport. But this irruption seems to be a particularly big one, big enough to even send an owl our way. Reports of snowy owl sightings are coming in from as far away as Washington State and as close as northern Indiana and Illinois.
The last big irruption was eight years ago, and it's never certain when the next will occur. So if you'd like a chance to spot a snowy owl, head outside and maybe swing on over to the prairie just south of the Environmental Discovery Center. You might sense your heart thumping a little louder when you spot that great white shape perched gargoyle-like in one of the few trees in the prairie, or feel your breath catch when those great white wings open as the owl drops off its perch and disappears like a phantom through the snow.
December 23, 2011
The Tough and the Cold… No Backbone Required
You’d expect a slug to be a little glob of frozen mucous after a week of sub-freezing temperatures. A little glob of dead frozen mucous. And yet here we found one, sliming its way up the side of a rain shelter off the Woodland trail. And over here… a snail slowly lugged its spiral home through the dirt. I stood there, watching, and felt a sense of weird amazement tingle up my spine.
Why the amazement? Because this was the second “warm” day after our week of below-freezing temperatures. And already the slimy invertebrates were out and about! Now, most snails hibernate – they creep into the soil or beneath rocks and logs to escape freezing. But how the heck did this snail and this slug make it out again so quickly? Did they sense the warming temperatures and metaphorically “sprint” back to the surface world to enjoy a few more days of sluggin’ around? Isn’t that a recipe for a quick death if the weather turned?
Now, many of our slugs and some of our snails do die during the winter. Only their eggs, carefully hidden in the soil or under an old log, will survive. But for this slug and snail to even make it a few weeks into the wintertime temperatures seems amazing. Slime does a wonderful job of retaining water and making these little guys taste nasty, but you’d think slime on a slug would do as much for insulation as spit on your tongue before you licked a frozen flag pole. Not a whole lot.
But the most amazing invertebrate find was a hibernating queen bald-faced hornet. In the hornet world, you have to be royalty to survive the winter. This queen’s sterile sisters, the workers of the nest, dropped off one by one as the nights consistently fell below the freezing mark. As a fertile queen, she escaped the nest-turned-death-chamber and chewed out this neat, circular cavity on the backside of some rotting wood in which to weather the cold. Once spring arrives, she’ll begin the construction of a new bald-faced hornet nest – one of those basketball-sized papery chambers that hang in the trees and tempt small boys to throw rocks – and then lay the eggs to populate her palace.
If the queen doesn’t survive, we don’t have hornets the next year. On this balmy 40-degree day we could watch the queen’s legs move ever-so-slowly, probably out of annoyance from being uncovered. But when it gets really cold, us humans will head out with layer after layer of down, wool and synthetics to protect us. She, however, will trust in her whopping one or two inches of rotten wood insulation to get her through the winter in a state of near-total suspended animation... anyone getting that tingling feeling of weird amazement again?
So when the snow starts to fly and we finally hit a cold stretch this season, remember these little guys. We might feel tough with our oversized parkas and big clomping boots, but the real harsh survivors are down in the dirt and under the rocks and logs. After all, it doesn’t take a backbone to be tough as nails… or to be just as cold!
December 6, 2011
King of the Headbangers
You never know when the show’s gonna start, so get there early. Jump on the Woodland Trail, head deep into the swamp forest, and find a spot with a view. No promises on where the stage is gonna be this time. But don’t worry. Whatever the season, nature provides an opening act that’s guaranteed to mystify. And if the star makes an appearance, blood-red mohawk flying, sharp eyes gleaming in a tattooed black-and-white face, harsh voice wailing out a rising “kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!” ...the hair’ll stand up on the back of your neck. He might whip that head back and forth a few times, tear through a few more shout-worthy lyrics, and then leave with even more attitude than when he arrived. ‘Cause he’s the King of the Headbangers, our pileated woodpecker, and you can feel it in your bones when he cries out, “welcome to the jungle!”
Everything about the pileated woodpecker is big, bold and loud. The sheer size of the bird is enough to stop you in your tracks. I saw my first one in this very park as a ten-year-old in the late 80’s. That crazy call drew my attention up to the forest canopy where a dark bird as big as a crow was hopping up the side of a tree. With deliberate power it hammered its bill into the trunk over and over, making a sound more like a man with a ball-peen hammer than a bird. And when it took flight those great black wings opened up to show stunning white patches, a telltale sign that this was no crow I was looking at. That, and the rockin’ mohawk. The pileated is our only woodpecker that sports a crest, a stiff shock of red feathers at the top of its head, with the red extending down the front of the face in a male. For a kid in the 80’s, this was definitive proof that the bird I had just witnessed… was totally awesome.
But like any big-name rocker, pileated woodpeckers don’t play the small gigs, especially in the Midwest. They need old, established forests with large, standing dead trees. Trees that are big enough on the inside to house a whole family of headbangers. Trees like we have at Indian Springs. And, like any headbanger worth his salt, these woodpeckers hollow out their nesting and roosting cavities with their heads. So why don’t they end up as brain-addled as some of those late-80’s rockers? A whole slew of adaptations prevent woodpecker brain injury, including a tight-packed brain, a slightly spongy cranium, and cartilage shock-absorbers at the base of the bill.
The wood chips go flyin'! (Look just to the left of this male pileated woodpecker's bill.)
But the best has got to be the tongue. When you make a living digging bugs out of wood, banging your head against a tree up to 12,000 times a day, it pays to have a long, bony, barbed and pointed tongue. One that’s so long, it literally wraps around the back of your skull and up over your brain. One that you can harpoon a bug hiding deep in a tree with before you suck it into your mouth. One that puts even Gene Simmons' to shame.
Which means, don’t go kissing any woodpeckers. It’d probably be unpleasant for the both of you. But do check ‘em out. If you want to see this king of the head bangers, swing on over to Indian Springs. Winter is a great time to see them, and the show’s goin’ on right now. Most of those hard-rockin’, head-bangin’ bands of the 80’s are gone now, but I’m hoping these head-bangin’ birds will never go out of style in our woods.
October 28, 2011
Singing their Death Song
Did you hear it? While you were walking from your car to the front door last night? Or maybe this morning, lurking down in the frost-covered grass? Did you hear it… the silence? It creeps up slowly during this time of year, and many people don’t even notice it. But stand outside on a frosty, misty morning like we had today, or take a walk on a cold, blustery afternoon or evening like we had yesterday and just listen. You just might notice a stillness filling the space where once crickets and grasshoppers sang.
Summer wouldn’t be summer without the great chorus of buzzing, chirping, scraping and droning that comes from our small Orthopteran insect musicians – our crickets and grasshoppers. They sing with their bodies. In science-speak, it's "stridulation." The crickets scrape a special rough edge called a “file” on one wing against a hardened “scraper” on the other. The grasshoppers stamp their feet to the music, using one rough leg like a violin’s bow as they rub it across the hardened edge of a wing. That, or they snap their wings together to make a crackling beat in flight.
And like human musicians, they sing songs of love and camaraderie, hoping to woo a woman or draw a few more guys into the song to increase their chances with the ladies. Some species of katydid are famous for their jam sessions, either coordinating or syncopating with the other guys to create great pulsing beats of sound that must be irresistible to the leggy green katydid girls. Unlike their human counterparts, these cricket and katydid musicians sense the groove with ears on their front legs, whereas the funky grasshoppers hear through openings in their abdomens.
A female redlegged grasshopper deposits some eggs
in the soil down in the sidewalk crack
And fall wouldn’t be fall without these tiny songsters slowly dropping out, one by one, until we wake up to a strangely silent landscape. Like too many musicians, they burn brightly and then die young. If their songs are successful, they mate in the summer’s or early fall’s heat and tuck away some eggs in the soil. Safe from the winter’s cold, these eggs will hatch out, come spring, to start a new generation of crickets and katydids and grasshoppers. But the beatnik songster papas, and even some of the mamas, keep singin’ till the end. When the sun came out this afternoon and melted the frost, I was surprised to still hear a few lonely fall field crickets in the prairie grasses as one small grasshopper silently leapt from a sunny patch on the sidewalk.
The last of them might still be singin’ in your neck of the woods. Only now those songs of love and camaraderie have become the death songs of these small insect musicians, played with a fierce, lonely joy until the next hard frost or a hungry bird or mouse ends their small lives. So when you’re walking up your front steps tonight, or when you crack the window one last time on a sunny, late-fall afternoon, take a moment of silence to listen for these little musicians. Maybe flick a lighter open in their honor. And let their song drift through your ears, or even just your memory, one last time.
September 3, 2011
Those Cute Little Babies
Who doesn't love a new baby's big, bright eyes? Or its vibrantly patterned scales and its sharp, dainty fangs? And who in their right mind could resist that new button of a rattle... right at the tip of its tail? OK, OK, maybe I’m stretching things here. After all, we don’t have adorable little lambs or perky piglets at Indian Springs Metropark.
We have baby rattlesnakes.
Out on our prairie trails, we’d been keeping tabs on a particularly “tubby” female eastern massasauga for several days. Our native rattlers look chunky on the best of days, but this one had a girth that just screamed, in that silent, snake-ish sort of way, “I’m pregnant!” We ended up losing track of her, but it was no surprise when we discovered a whole mess of baby rattlers coiled beneath an old ash log in the same area the following week.
Unlike most of our native snakes, massasaugas don’t lay their eggs. They remain in the female’s body until the young “snakelets” are fully developed. At this point the momma-to-be gives birth, and each baby rattler comes out in a fine membrane – all that’s left of the egg – that quickly splits and releases the bright-eyed newborn. We counted at least eight baby rattlers in this group, and an eastern massasauga mother can have up to 20 young in the late summer months.
Baby massasaugas are born ready-to-go. Full mobility? Check. Functional fangs? Check. Toxic venom? Check. The classic rattlesnake rattle? Che… wait a second! Take a close look at the following picture. Each baby rattler has a “button” at the tip of its tail. One more “rattle” section gets added each time the snake sheds its skin. Which means, a newborn rattler can move and bite, but until it sheds for the first time, it can’t actually rattle. It can shake that little tail, but it takes at least two rattle sections to make a “rattle” noise. Newborn rattlers suffer under the snake version of the joke, “what’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
Which may be why rattler newborns are so darn ornery. They’ll coil and bite more readily than the normally shy adult massasaugas, and they pack a deadly, baby-sized venomous punch. Maybe it’s because they lack that warning rattle. Or maybe it’s just a tenacious, desperate, necessary attempt to stay alive… since many of them will get picked off by predators before next year. And if you look at the following picture (it's a double-header!), you’ll see that some of them already have milky eyes, a sure sign that, after only a week or so of life, they’ve grown enough to soon be shedding their skins and getting that next little rattle segment.
You’ll also notice that momma hung around under the log, too. Out live-bearing rattlesnakes typically stay in the same area as their young for the first week or so, giving their young a little more protection than we typically associate with snakes. After that, the young will disperse and mother and babies will part ways. While it’s not the level of care you’d expect from a mother sheep or a hefty sow, the rattlesnake babies themselves are still kinda cute, if I do say so myself. Just no petting, please.
August 14, 2011
Is that a Gallinipper Galli - Nippin’ You?
First, let me set the record straight. Stories of gallinippers carrying off small children, or of sucking a grown man dry in under 20 minutes, cannot be substantiated. And the report from Arkansas, of a gallinipper attempting to drain the blood of a toy poodle and ending up with the entire dog lodged in its proboscis is... well... entirely made up. But the fact that these giant blood suckers are out there, and that they’re biting… is completely true.
“What the heck is a gallinipper?” you might be asking right about now. A gallinipper is a mosquito. A freakin’ big mosquito. The word “gallinipper” has been around since the 1700’s and 1800’s, and the true origin’s unknown. “Gallinipper” seems to be an amalgamation of “galley” and “nipper” (I’ll let you figure out where your “galley” might be) and it’s largely used in the south to identify a big biting insect. The mosquitos who bear this name, however, have been around far longer than the word, and they’re up in the north, too.
In Michigan, a gallinipper is properly called a Psorophora ciliata. They’re hefty mosquitos that only make an appearance when the conditions are right. Their eggs can survive in the soil for several years, just waiting for the type of late-summer field-flooding rains that we’ve recently had. And once these fields flood, those hidden eggs hatch and out come the big ‘ol Psorophora ciliata larvae. These king-sized mosquito wrigglers actually feed on the aquatic larvae of smaller mosquitos. Which brings up the age-old conundrum: would you rather be bitten by one big mosquito, or lots of little ones?
I know I’d choose the “one big mosquito.” But then, I think big mosquitos are mighty cool. Unlike their wimpy little cousins who lurk in the shade and wait ‘till dusk or even nightfall to bite, these gallinippers will take a chunk out of you during a sunny day when you’re far from any treeline. And rather than the familiar high-pitched mosquito whine, gallinippers fly in for their blood meal with a deeper tenor tremble to their buzzing wings.
However, like our other 60-odd (at least!) species of mosquito that live in the Great Lakes region, gallinippers have short lives. Each skeeter only lasts about two weeks, and each female needs one big belly full of blood in that timeframe before she can grow the next batch of Psorophora ciliata eggs. I saw my first ‘nipper the beginning of last week. Does that mean we only have a few more days to go before they’re all dead? Not quite. They don’t all hatch out at the same time, so I’m banking on seeing gallinippers ‘till the end of the month. But soon after, cool weather and a naturally short lifespan will do ‘em in.
If you're not much of a giant, biting, suck-your-blood insect fan, take heart. The mosquitos have been quite horrendous these last few weeks, and they’re not quite done yet. So whether you find yourself fascinated or disgusted by these blood-sucking little buggers, I leave you with a verse or two from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Mosquito Moan:”
Mosquitoes all around me, mosquitoes everywhere I go
Mosquitoes all around me, mosquitoes everywhere I go
No matter where I go, they sticks their bills in me
I would say gallinipper, these gallinippers bites too hard
I would say gallinipper, these gallinippers bites too hard
I stepped back in my kitchen and they springing up in my back yard
June 27, 2011
The Romance of the Northern Water Snake
(as interpreted by a sixth grader)
The sixth graders watched, some from the corners of their eyes, as the skinny little guy approached her one last time. She was actually the larger of the two – girls mature more quickly, after all – and she appeared to be stronger as she lounged by the water, soaking up some sun. But the skinny little guy moved confidently, if a little slowly, the hormones of youth lending him a courage of sorts. He made his move, sidling on up and gently, almost accidentally brushing her skin. Her body tensed and, with a finality reserved for love scorned, she dove into the water and swam away. A sixth grade boy, watching from the side, let out his breath and declared, dramatically, “Re-JECTed!”
Our large female northern water snake.
And thus ended (or so we thought) the romance of the northern water snake, as witnessed by a sixth grade class out for a field trip at the Environmental Discovery Center. The smaller male had approached the female snake half-a-dozen times, each time pressing his brown and tan-mottled body against the larger, darker female, and each time she immediately swam away. To a bunch of sixth graders who had recently discovered that the other gender actually doesn’t have cooties, it seemed at once fascinating and just a little emotionally crushing. Even reptiles have to deal with rejection.
The skinny little male with his lighter coloration.
And rejection is just the tip of the iceberg for a snake that’s routinely mistaken for a deadly “water moccasin.” Swimming snakes, harmless or not, invoke abject terror and the occasional cries of "kill the beast!" in many a person. However, the real water moccasins (venomous snakes that are properly known as cottonmouths) live strictly in the southern states. Our northern water snakes, with their mottled brown to almost pitch-black coloration, are completely harmless.
Well, let me rephrase that. Lacking venom, they won’t kill you, but they’re known to have a “nasty temper.” Which really means they have a fighting desire to live, and they’ll repeatedly bite any perceived predator (ie. somebody who grabs them). That, and their saliva has anticoagulant properties, so a bite from a northern water snake tends to bleed a lot. And those bites actually hurt. As a boy I learned this firsthand at a summer camp. I also learned that standing with a snake in each hand and blood running down each arm was not a way to impress the opposite gender. I’m guessing nobody ever called Brad Pitt “The Snake-Bite Kid.”
But both of these stories have happy endings. For even snake-bitten naturalists find love, and so did our skinny little northern water snake. When I returned an hour or so later to snap a few more pictures of these aquatic serpents, I found both the scrawny male and the powerful female sunning together, scales touching scales and serpentine tongues flicking, it seemed, in unison.
Relaxing together, the male on the left (with his face hidden).
June 12, 2011
"Eat at Joe's"
To us, it was a spring prescribed burn, a carefully-administered application of fire to maintain and rejuvenate the prairie landscape by the Environmental Discovery Center. To our resident red-tailed hawk, it was as if we had lit up a giant, flaming “Eat at Joe’s” sign advertising our new seasonal park restaurant. He flew right in, took up position on a parking lot light post, and eagerly awaited the flame-broiled first course.
You can read my post from November 30th, 2010 to learn more about why we use prescribed burns as a management tool at our park. But why we use fire probably matters little to a light-colored adult red-tailed hawk who calls this area of the park home. For the past three years this hawk hasn’t missed a single prescribed burn. As soon as it detects the smoke and flame, it silently flies in, takes up position nearby, and waits. You see, this smart raptor has learned that “fire” really means “food.”
If you’re a red-tailed hawk, nothing says “good eatin’” like a small, scurrying rodent… and when that rodent’s scurrying out in the open, why, it’s as if someone set out a pre-paid dinner platter for the taking. This particular hawk learned that our prescribed burns “set the platter,” so to speak. As fire burns across the grassland, the many small mice, voles and shrews either take shelter in the soil or frantically run to reach unburned areas. These little guys frequently pop out into already-burnt patches or other spaces that lack grassy shelter, and it’s here where our hawk makes its move.
From his perch on a nearby tree or, in this case, parking lot lamp post (can you spot him in the picture above?), our hawk takes a flapping leap into the air, tucks those great wings, and swoops down onto our frantic little rodent. Strong talons make for a quick death, and our hawk usually flies back up to a perch to finish the meal. (Though I’ve watched it scarf down a smallish rodent or two right on the spot – etiquette can be lax at this restaurant establishment!) At this particular spring burn I watched our hawk catch four rodents over a several-hour period, and I’m not sure how many other courses were eaten “in private” without my noticing.
But it’s not just any hawk who shows up for the “Eat at Joe’s” invitation. It’s this particular hawk with the white facial markings. Most red-tailed hawks won’t come anywhere near a fire or a human being, but this one has learned that it can safely pluck up a small rodent from within 20 feet of the burn technicians sporting their yellow firefighter suits. And it’s this particular hawk who reminds me that the forests and fields are filled with personalities.
Each animal learns and grows during its lifetime, and while it can be pretty darn hard to tell them apart, they’re each individuals. That robin or song sparrow you hear singing every morning from your bedroom window isn’t just any robin or sparrow. It’s the individual bird that calls your yard (or the area around your yard) home. If you watch it closely, you might find that it knows something about your yard, or even about your daily patterns, that other birds don’t.
And if you’re lucky enough to be here the next time we have a prescribed burn, keep your eyes open for our particular red-tailed hawk with the light markings and the whitish face. It’s out to enjoy the prairie barbecue… or is it a grassland flambé? Whatever you call it, the landscape will be rejuvenated… and, if you’re a hawk, there will be food!
May 15, 2011
“Release the Bees!”
What do you do when the barbarian hordes try to take your castle? You stand atop your mighty walls and pour boiling oil on them! Or maybe pelt them with stones and shoot them with arrows. What did we (unintentionally) do to people who tried to enter the Environmental Discovery Center last week? Why, we dropped great, fuzzy, disoriented bees on their heads!
OK, I don’t think anyone actually got hit by the bees, and we weren’t really dropping them on people, but there were a few comments about the big, fat “bumblebees” falling out of the finger-sized holes right above the front doors. Truth is, they weren’t bumblebees at all. Instead, they were aptly-named carpenter bees.
These fat, hairy bumblebee-look-alikes don’t actually eat wood like termites. Instead, they use their powerful jaws to chew near-circular tunnels through wood in which they lay their eggs. These brood chambers can be relatively simple tunnels that extend less than a foot. Or, if they’re used over successive years by several bees, they can grow to be many feet deep with several branches. The females use some of the chewed wood to create partitions between egg chambers. They also leave a tasty ball of pollen with each egg.
These larvae hatch out, eat their carefully-prepared pollen ball, and develop into adult bees later in the summer. The bees who plummeted from the holes above our doorways weren’t newly-hatched. They were these late-summer adults who had escaped the cold by overwintering in the brood tunnels. Over the past several days, some of them hung out near the tunnel entrances for a bit, but many just up and plopped to the pavement. They wandered around groggily for a few minutes before they seemed to get their bearings and flew off.
The big question is, how do you tell a carpenter bee from a bumblebee? Well, if it’s chewing into the wood on your eaves, it’s definitely a carpenter bee! When I was a much younger naturalist, I used to love putting my ear against the wooden pillar at the corner of my parent’s porch and listen to the soft, rhythmic gnawing as carpenter bees chewed into the wood. Unlike termites, carpenter bees don’t tend to cause serious structural damage to houses. We used to enjoy watching them emerge and then return each year.
The other (relatively) easy way to tell a carpenter bee is by its solid black, shiny upper surface of the abdomen. Most bumblebees have stripes of yellow, or at least some fuzzy hairs on their rears. The jet-black, shiny derrieres of carpenter bees, in contrast, look almost beetle-like.
Now that the weather’s warmed and the bees have emerged, it’s perfectly safe, once again, to walk through the front doors of the Environmental Discovery Center. You don’t have to keep a lookout for boiling oil or falling rocks. After all, it’ll be a good twelve months or so until we can once again call out, “release the bees!”
April 25, 2011
Go on a Wildlife Exploration to discover the plants and animals that you can see at Indian Springs Metropark. University of Michigan art student Natalie Freilich developed this interactive page. Have fun!
April 24, 2011
Part Serpent and Part Mountain
When a group of crows burst from the forest floor and reluctantly skulked away through the trees, I knew something was up. I needed to get back to the building, so I remembered a good landmark – the bleached snag of a dead tree that jutted up past an ant mound – and returned the next day with my coworker, Dave. Near that same snag and past the ant mound we found a mat of sun- and snow-bleached hair and a few gnawed ribs that once belonged to a white tailed deer. We circled wider and wider, looking for other remains when Dave made the real find: the first Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake of the year.
This was on April 15th, a cold, damp day with a blustery wind that made it feel more like the end of winter rather than the beginning of spring. Our snake was definitely feeling the cold, too. Despite us creeping in for some photos, the snake didn’t so much as move a muscle, let alone rattle.
Many indigenous peoples describe the rattlesnake as being part serpent and part mountain; like a chunk of stone, these snakes have the uncanny ability to remain perfectly motionless for seemingly endless periods of time. Despite this reptilian patience, I think our snake was acting rock-like because it was literally too chilled to move. It’s not uncommon to see cold-tolerant garter snakes out and about after the first good thaw, but our Massasaugas typically wait until the ground has heated to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit before they emerge from hibernation. This guy was probably as put out as the rest of us to find that the cold had returned.
Dave and I were down in the swamp, and this is where to find massasaugas in the spring. In our park, they tend to hibernate in crayfish burrows, slinking their bodies down into the chilly but un-freezing groundwater. Only their heads will remain protruding above the water table. Now that they’ve emerged, the snakes will spend the next bit of time down in the swamp. They’ll sun themselves on exposed clumps of grass and, resting as still as mountains, hope for the passing of a careless rodent or two. Before long, as the sun grows higher and the earth grows warmer, they’ll be slithering upland, heading into the dry, grassy fields and prairies in search of more tasty rodents and prospective rattlesnake mates.
What began with a few crows and a bit of curiosity led to the thrill of spotting a rattlesnake just out of hibernation. We wish this shy, patient creature best of luck for the coming year!
March 22, 2011
Hot n’ Stinky Spring Flowers
What grows in the muck, looks like a goblin’s finger and smells like rot? If you guessed the first wildflower of spring, you’re right! Look in just about any low, swampy spot off of our woodland trails right now and you’ll see the odd flowers of the skunk cabbage, our first official wildflower of the season.
The outer part of the flower, called the “spathe,” wraps the bloom in a pointy green and purple-streaked hood. The inner part, called the “spadix,” is the actual flower blossom cluster. And it’s this inner spadix that puts the “hot” in “hot n’ stinky.”
Most plants have a very low metabolism and stay cool to the touch. Not the skunk cabbage blossom. With a metabolism more like that of a small mammal, the spadix generates an enormous amount of heat for its small size. This blossom cluster can reach a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or more, even when the air around it is still below freezing. The hooded spathe helps contain this heat and protects the spadix from cooling winds.
In fact, skunk cabbage could be called the first wild flower of winter. Spring officially “sprung” on Sunday, but we’ve been watching these weird flowers melt their way up through the snow for the past several weeks. Now, melting through the snow is a pretty cool trick, but this extreme heat is really all about the stinky. The warmth helps volatize and spread the chemicals that give the skunk cabbage blossoms their sickly-sweet, slightly acrid smell. And it’s this smell that attracts the flies and beetles and other connoisseurs of the dead and the rotten to pollinate them. (I have to admit, I kinda like the smell, too.)
But what’s even better than being hot n’ stinky? Why, being poisonous, of course! Skunk cabbage has this going for it as well. The plant’s tissues are filled with calcium oxalate crystals. These sharp little nasties cut into the mucous membranes something fierce. I once heard a story of a boy who mistakenly ate some. He described the experience thusly: imagine someone making a fist while wearing a glove made out of razor blades. Now imaging said fist being shoved down your throat. The sensation would be not unlike that of eating skunk cabbage.
While this stops most would-be skunk cabbage munchers, it doesn’t seem to slow down our wild turkeys. When the flowers were just starting to peek through the snow, our fearless turkeys went on a skunk cabbage rampage, pecking apart nearly every spathe they could find. Now that the snow’s melted, we can fully appreciate the carnage: skunk cabbage blooms torn asunder, with the actual flower heads, the spadices (or are they spadii?), eaten.
These flowers will soon disappear, to be replaced by the unfurling of great green skunk cabbage leaves as far as the eyes can see in the Huron Swamp. But for now, we still have a few weeks to enjoy the blooms in all of their hot n' stinky glory.
March 13, 2011
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” – John Lubbock
Have you ever stood in the woods, stared down at tracks in the snow, and asked yourself the question, when is an owl... not an owl? Maybe not. But let me back up a bit. My predicament started not with the snow, nor with an owl, but with a computer screen. I was reading Lake Erie's excellent blog (I like to see what my fellow naturalists are up to at the other parks). The February 5th entry, “Dance of the Hunger Moon,” stirred something in me. Gerry Wykes wrote of owl tracks he found in the snow – the shadowy marks of an owl's wings and talons as it pounced on a white-footed mouse. Did the mouse survive? Check out Lake Erie’s blog to find out.
For me, it got the heart pumping. Man, what I wouldn't give to run across something like that! I’ve seen plenty of pictures in books and on the internet of the winter marks left by an owl attack, but I’ve never seen them with my own eyes, “in the flesh.” And I have to admit, whenever I trek through the wintry fields and woods of Indian Springs, I keep hoping to find a similar tale captured in the snow. On this day, the woods were bursting with stories. Here a coyote carefully stepped in the footfalls of a deer, conserving energy by using the same tracks. A group of wild turkeys prowled the ice along a frozen section of the Huron, pecking at the banks and leaving perfect prints in the fine snow. Squirrels raided caches of nuts hidden last fall, leaving dark holes in the wintry blanket.
And then... I almost missed them. A little off the trail by Hunter's Ridge, the brush of wings were captured in the snow. Large wings. This big bird came down at an angle, the left wing raking across the ground, the legs thrusting forward through the snow... an owl attack! Right here!
“The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.”
– Edward R. Murrow
OK, now what animal met its untimely demise under the talons of this owl? Here’s where my problem began. There were no tracks belonging to any other animal. Not where the owl pounced. Was the owl plunging through the snow to grab some small rodent hidden beneath the surface? And… wait a second… did the owl run after it? The tracks leading to the north for several yards, and then veering to the west for several yards more definitely belonged to a bird. The toes and talons were unmistakable. But why the heck would an owl be running… or walking, as it now looked to be doing… through deep snow?
And over here… was this another owl that touched down, dragging its tail through the snow? Or was this the same owl? But this owl also decided to walk through the snow after some invisible prey. I was so perplexed I actually walked away from the tracks, heading down the trail, then turned around to come back. My camera batteries had died, and it just wasn’t making sense. I so wanted these to be owl tracks. I so wanted to have a story like the one captured on film by Gerry. And when the perfect turkey tracks I had seen an hour earlier, prowling along the frozen Huron, flashed through my mind’s eye, I literally laughed out loud.
When is an owl not an owl? When it’s a turkey. Or, more precisely, when it’s several turkeys coming down from their nighttime roost in the trees. Which means I still haven’t seen an “owl story” played out in tracks in the snow. And with the snow melting, I may have to wait ‘till next year for my chance. However, the woods and fields are still filled with quiet adventures and chances to hone the senses and the imagination. And next winter, when I’m (hopefully!) gazing at the ephemeral marks of bird wings in the snow, I’ll be looking at what is truly before me… rather than at what I hope to see. Otherwise, you can call me a turkey.
“You can observe a lot just by watching.” – Yogi Berra
February 24, 2011
The Case of the Chickadee and the Knapweed
For the past several weeks I've watched a small flock of chickadees feed almost exclusively on spotted knapweed seed heads at Indian Springs Metropark. They'll each snap off a dry, dead-looking seed head from above the snow and then fly with it up to a nearby tree branch where they'll meticulously pick it apart. Now, chickadees are one of my favorite birds. These little black, white and gray balls of feathery fluff will belt out a summery “fee-bee” on the coldest winter morning. I've even heard them singing when the snow's pouring down.
Spotted knapweed, on the other hand, ranks near the top of my “most unwanted” list. An invasive species from Europe and Asia, spotted knapweed is one of the last plants we want in our sixty acres of restored prairie at the park. Besides being ridiculously tenacious and difficult to eradicate, it releases chemicals that literally poison the soil around it for other plants. Which means, once you get knapweed in your fields, you end up finding more and more knapweed and less and less of the native grasses and flowers you'd like to see.
The American tree sparrows foraging in the same fields wouldn't touch the stuff. They stuck to the native species, especially the tall Indian grass. Each sparrow would fly up and grasp the top of a stalk near the seeds, then tuck its wings and ride the stalk as it bent to the snowy earth. Once the seeds were down on the snow, the sparrow could snap 'em up. A whole flock of tree sparrows doing this gives the appearance of “bird popcorn” springing up from the snow and riding grass stalks back down to the earth.
An American tree sparrow rides an Indian grass stalk down to the snow... tasty seeds!
It's not just tree sparrows who prefer native plants to knapweed. In fact, most birds won't eat spotted knapweed seeds. That's the curse of invasive plants. They may look pretty, but few creatures from our country are adapted to eat them. As they crowd out native plants, they disturb the food chain from the bottom up. Most insects won't eat 'em, which makes for fewer insects, which makes for fewer insect-eating birds and small mammals, which makes for fewer... you get the picture. Had the chickadees somehow learned to eat the knapweed seeds? Or was there more going on here than meets the eye?
On a hunch, I hit the books... and the internet. After a bit of research, I discovered that two small flies of the Urophora genus have been introduced to try to control the knapweed. Hailing from its native Eurasia, the larvae of these knapweed seed head gall flies overwinter in... well... galls in the seed heads of the knapweed! These little fly maggots feed on the seeds before creating their galls, thereby aiding in the destruction of the next generation of knapweed plants.
I collected about eighty-odd knapweed seed heads from the fields near the Environmental Discovery Center and dissected them at home on my kitchen table. Other than earning a few strange looks from my step kids, I found that about two-thirds of them (the seed heads, not the step kids) held little teardrop-shaped fly galls containing plump little fly maggots. Who woulda thought?
An Urophora fly maggot (on the right) with the broken-open gall above it.
These flies were released in Michigan in 1994 to help control spotted knapweed.
The chickadees may very well be eating a knapweed seed here and there... but I have a sneaky suspicion these little guys have discovered a plentiful supply of fat, juicy maggots conveniently held right above the deep snow. I'm banking on the fact that they won't be able to eat all of the fly larvae, since I'd love to see one of these knapweed-bustin' flies come summer. But I'm impressed by the chickadees' ability to learn and to discover a new and plentiful winter food source. Here's a hat's-off to these energetic little detectives!
Discarded knapweed seed heads on the snow... the chickadees were here!
January 25, 2011
Trapped Beneath the Ice
I remember the terror I felt when I watched my little brother fall through the ice on Duck Lake. The shroud of memory makes it all the more horrible, and suddenly he’s trapped beneath a hard, slick ice ceiling in freezing-cold watery darkness….
It still makes me shudder.
It also makes me think of muskrats. Unlike my little brother, who fell through the ice (and survived to tell the tale) due to the sometimes-stupid daring of youth (and absolutely no encouragement from his older brother, I swear!), muskrats anticipate and carefully plan for the possibility of spending weeks, if not months, trapped under the ice.
Their survival is closely linked to the construction of muskrat lodges. You can watch a muskrat build a lodge at any time of the year, but you’re more likely to see these haphazard piles of vegetation and mud appear in your local wetland as winter approaches. We watched a group of four muskrats build this lodge in our discovery pond in late fall. Over the course of two days they mounded up a whole mess of cattail leaves, bulrush stalks and muck around the framework of a stump that was already jutting above the water’s surface. This “four muskrat” lodge stands two feet two inches tall and measures about four feet in diameter. An especially large lodge may reach almost six feet in height and seven or eight feet in diameter.
The only entrance, however, is from below. Once they pile up the plants and muck, the muskrats chew their way into it from underwater. Which means, once the lake or pond ices over, these tough rodents may spend the entire winter either in their lodge or beneath the ice foraging for the aquatic vegetation they eat. It’s up to the muskrats themselves to keep the underwater entrance – their only gateway to fresh food – from freezing.
A cross-section of a cattail stem (on the left) and a bulrush stalk.
The hollow spaces trap air, which makes both plants excellent as insulation.
The mud and plant exterior of the lodge freezes until it’s hard as concrete, protecting these water rats from most predators. The ‘rats themselves also have thick, soft, waterproof fur that traps a layer of body-warmed air against their skin. Even so, when it comes time to dive into the frigid water beneath the lodge, they’ll try to keep their excursions to under a minute. They’ll even build separate “mini-lodges” that serve as satellite feeding shelters away from the main lodge. These give them a dry, comparatively warm place to pop up into while munching aquatic plants. It makes me want to start up the “muskrat diet” – place your fridge at the bottom of a near-freezing pool and see how it cuts down on between-meal snacking!
Two feeding shelters. Both are small, measuring only one foot in both height and in
diameter -- just enough space for a single muskrat.
If the ice cracks or thaws, a muskrat will take advantage of it in a heartbeat. ‘Rats will routinely shove plant matter up through cracks in the ice in what are called “push-ups.” These end up looking a lot like the pre-built feeding shelters, but muskrats make them on-the-fly during the winter as they exploit cracks or gnaw their way through thin ice.
This little guy emerged from beneath the ice during our New-Year's thaw.
Muskrats tend to be territorial, and they can be downright vicious to non-family members during most of the year. However, winter brings a sort of truce to their world, and several muskrats from the same and even different families may huddle for warmth in the same lodge. (Although I did come across one account of them resorting to cannibalism when the plant food ran out!) So if you’re starting to feel a bit of the winter stir-craziness brewing, be glad you’re not a muskrat, living in a world of icy darkness, hidden in a frozen lodge with your only escape beneath the ice. That, and try not to think of resorting to cannibalism!
January 13, 2011
The First Snake of Winter
Snow buntings. White weasels. Fat men in red suits. I'd expect to see any or all of these special phenomena in winter. But winter snakes? Not so much. So when my coworker Dave reported a garter snake on the prowl on January 3rd, I had to check it out. And there it was, slow and scaly, right outside the chipmunk burrow it had previously crept into for some winter shelter.
An eastern garter snake out catching some sun after the
"big thaw" on the first weekend of the new year.
Reptiles and amphibians don't “go to sleep” in the winter, like woodchucks or thirteen-lined ground squirrels. During herp hibernation, technically called “brumation,” these cold-blooded critters remain alert, but their body processes become extremely slow as the temperature drops. The slower things get for a snake or a turtle or a frog, the less energy they need to survive. This works out pretty well when they need to make it for 6 months or so without eating. In fact, their entire digestive systems shut down.
And it's not just internal processes. Even though they're still awake, everything begins to run in slow-motion for a winter-cooled snake. The air temperature was a balmy 31 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of the sighting. This guy here took over 30 minutes to turns its head and slither about an inch. Two hours later, it had finally slipped back down it's borrowed burrow.
Thirty minutes later, moving as fast as... a really cold snake.
The big question is, why was this little guy out and about in January? Eastern garter snakes can tolerate a few days at a chilly 29 degrees. If it gets colder than that, or if they get stuck in the cold for more than a day or two, they quickly become very much frozen and very much dead. Which is why, come fall, they seek sheltered spots, like this chipmunk burrow, a rock pile, or the occasional basement, where they can escape the brunt of the chill and brumate the winter away.
This choice is important, since a third to a half of an area's garter snake population may die over winter if they choose areas that drop below 29 degrees. The farther north you go, the fewer choice overwintering spots you find, and these norther garters routinely gather in the hundreds and even thousands to fill tried-and-true spots. Best of luck to our brother Canadian snakes this season!
Two hours later, and finally out of sight.
In Michigan, garter snakes usually wait until at least March to emerge from their hibernacula. (A fancy word for, “place where they hibernate,” back before the science community came up with the clever “brumation” term.) However, there have been the occasional sightings during a winter thaw of a snake come out to soak up a few rays. And males often crawl out first in the spring, hang around near the hibernacula with the other guys, and pounce en-mass on the first females to emerge... as only a whole mass of snakes can pounce. Think about a big ball of living spaghetti in the mood for love, and you get the picture.
Was our snake lingering a little bit after enjoying the 50-degree sunshine of the previous weekend? Did he have visions of sultry spring she-snakes in his reptilian mind? (If, indeed, he wasn't one of these she-snakes himself!) We may never know. But until we see him (or her) again in March or April, fare thee well, o' first snake of winter!
November 30, 2010
After the Burn
It looks like a blasted wasteland, all black ash and dirt and death, until you look a little closer. There, next to the charred bristles of little bluestem grass and the burnt, sooty stems of showy goldenrod… tiny shafts of green peek up through the late November frost.
On November 8th, specially trained technicians set fire to 17 acres of prairie just south of the Environmental Discovery Center. We use these prescribed burns for several reasons. Fire controls the advance of woody shrubs and trees that would eventually turn our grassland into a forest. It also helps control the spread of invasive weeds. Our native, fire-adapted species have deep roots, as well as buds and growth tips just beneath the surface of the soil. They usually have little difficulty sprouting back after a burn.
Just as importantly, fire rejuvenates a prairie. Come spring, areas that were burned grow back lush and more diverse than before. I’ve seen this while performing research at our park. Even in areas that were burned two or three years ago, I still find a greater diversity of species than in the areas that weren’t burned.
This was our first fall burn at the park. Fall burns tend to favor an increase in wildflower diversity, while spring burns often favor the growth of prairie grasses. For the first several years after seeding our prairie, we used spring burns. Now that our grasses resemble those “amber waves of grain,” we’re hoping to do most of our burning in the fall.
What amazes me is how quickly the land responds after a burn. Even though it’s late fall, and even with a string of cold, windy November days and sub-freezing nights, I could still find green shoots within a week or two of the burn. Even though the real growth will begin next spring, what looks like a dead, blackened landscape is already on its way to becoming a carpet of green once again.
November 6, 2010
The Interplay of Extremes
A Cold Frog on a Hot Mat
I’m an oatmeal guy. Give me a nice, bubbling pot of the slimy gruel on a cold morning and I’m a happy man. It might look like glue and taste like old cardboard, but on a cold morning the warmth it adds to my chilly belly is well worth it. And just the other morning I found my oldest step-daughter huddled over the bubbling pot, rubbing her hands together in the oatmeal steam like a drifter next to an oil-drum fire. She gave me a sleepy glance and whispered, “it’s warm!” I smiled and, being a naturalist, thought of frogs.
You see, fall is one of my favorite times to look for herps. Y’know, reptiles and amphibians. Frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, salamanders and the like. These guys are all cold-blooded. Which doesn’t mean that their blood is cold. They just can't regulate their body temperature like we can. On a hot day, they’re all warm, quick and sassy. On a cool autumn morning or afternoon, they’re cold, sluggish and looking for a bit of warmth.
If you know where the warmth is, you can find the herps.
This northern leopard frog found some extra life-sustaining heat nestled in the folds of a black rubber door mat right outside the Environmental Discovery Center. We’d usually see this slippery amphibian in the tall grasses near our ponds or woods. But on a cold autumn day, this frog found a little bit of heaven in the hot, black door mat. It's similar with other herps. You might go all summer without seeing a single snake in the park and then see half a dozen of them soaking up the late-day heat on the asphalt of the Pondside Trail in a single fall afternoon.
It’s the interplay of extremes. If your goal is to see wildlife, think like the animals think. When it’s cold, they often seek out the warm places. Look for the spots where it’s toasty, whether it’s a sun-heated rubber mat or a sunny opening. In the rain, look to the dry, sheltered places. And when it’s hot and sweltering, think about where it might be a bit cooler or breezier. After all, they want to be comfortable, just like we do. They don’t have air conditioning or central heating, so they rely on their knowledge of their habitat to meet their needs. If we watch them carefully, they can all teach us quite a bit about the landscape.
It’s chilly right now, but the coming week looks to be a bit warmer, perfect for a fall herp hike. Head outside and look to the warm places and see if you can spot some late-season snakes, turtles or frogs. It might be your last chance to see them until next spring. Let us know if you spot some!
October 1, 2010
Back from the Dead
It’s like stalking dinosaurs. The small hairs on the back of my neck and arms stir when I hear that familiar scratching through the leaf litter. Long, reptilian legs carry these beasts across the forest floor as they walk, hop, and then stop, searching. Bald, leathery heads turn as keen eyes scan for small creatures to snap up in powerful bills. I take a step and crunch a leaf. Heads snap up, darting eyes spot me, and the beasts are off, running through the woods at up to 19 miles per hour. I stand still and watch them go, smiling. Birds that run. Wild turkeys.
Before Europeans arrived, an estimated 94,000 wild turkeys called Michigan home. However, unregulated market hunting and the clearing of land during colonial times devastated the turkey population in our state. The last rock-solid report of a wild turkey in Michigan was of a bird shot in Arlington Township of Van Buren county in 1897. Historians are fairly certain that the turkey was extirpated, or totally wiped out, from Michigan by 1900.
By the 1940’s, turkeys could only be found in 12% of their former range east of the Mississippi. Like Michigan, 15 states had lost their entire turkey populations.
So what prevented wild turkeys from joining the ranks of the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet? People decided they wanted to make good on past mistakes. They wanted wild turkeys in their woods once again. A coalition of hunters, conservationists and the federal government began turkey reintroduction programs.
These began in Michigan in 1954. By 1964, Michigan was up to 2000 wild birds. This increased to 15,000 by 1983. And then things really took off. Today, the Michigan turkey population is estimated at over 140,000 birds. It blows my minds that it’s only been during my lifetime, in the past 30-odd years, that you could head into the woods and expect to see a wild turkey. Before that, the woods were pretty much gobble-free.
We can do good. For the land, for its creatures. We can play a role that minimizes harm, that restores habitat, that works with the land rather than against it. It’s truly possible. But only if we really want to. We have wild turkeys again. What else could we accomplish?
Here’s a fun trick. If you ever find your bench covered in turkeys, or maybe just turkey droppings, check ‘em out. The turkeys and the droppings. Make sure you don’t sit in them (the droppings, that is), but take a good look at them. The droppings of a hen are in little piles, like Hershey’s kisses. Gobbler poop, from a strutting male turkey, comes out in neat little “J” shapes. Amaze your friends! Confuse your enemies! And enjoy this sign of a bird that runs like a dinosaur and once again lives in our woods.
September 24, 2010
In Search of Fall Color
Maples show a hint of reddish-orange on the edges. Hickories and spicebush tease us with a flash of deep lemon-yellow here and there. And the virginia creeper... well, they've been flying their blood-red for a few weeks. But I'm not here to talk about color change on trees. They're just starting with their fall fireworks. I'm on a quest for a different kind of fall color, one that won't last. I'm in search of the rare fringed gentian.
Why hunt for a fringed gentian? For one thing, this flower's petals are a deep, true blue. We have plenty of shades of violet out here in the park – New England and azure asters, rough blazing stars, blue-flag iris (which are really more violet than blue, name notwithstanding), and, well, the good 'ol violets – but how many are truly blue? Thoreau himself said that the blue of the fringed gentian was like the blue of a “male bluebird's back.” He was a gentian-hunter, too.
If the blue doesn't do it for you, the fringed gentians also sport a retro-70's shag fringe running across the margins of their petals. And these flowers are downright shy about when they'll open those fuzzy petals. Clouds covered the sun on my first day out and almost all of the gentians were closed tight. These little guys usually wait for the sunlight before they'll show off. I had to wait for a day with clear skies later in the week before I could snap some pictures of opened gentians.
But the most compelling reason to hunt the fringed gentian is to see if they're even still there. These wildflowers thrive in bogs, fens and swamps. Sadly, these good swampy places seem to be going the way of that 70's fringe. Gentian survival can get dicey even in protected parks like Indian Springs. I hiked out to Timberland lake to find these special flowers, and found several small patches, but the naturalists who have been here longer than me remember much larger numbers of the blue flowers.
What changed? A beaver dam, built several years ago for a single season, raised the water level and drowned out many of the fringed gentians. These flowers are annuals and biennials. Each year needs to put down seeds to grow next year's flowers. Losing even one year's plants can doom the gentians in that area. Luckily, ours are still around and hopefully making a comeback.
Because here's a secret. I didn't photograph the second gentian out at Timberland lake. I know of at least one more fringed gentian patch, much closer to the Environmental Discovery Center. There are probably more. Seeds have a way of travelling, and our fringed gentians continue to bloom and spread through the park. Come on out and hunt for them yourselves. But please, don't pick them. After all, what would fall be without all the color... especially the blue?
September 6, 2010
In Defense of the Innocent
With itchy, red-rimmed eyes and wet, drippy noses they point a trembling finger at the fields of late-summer yellow and exclaim, “I hate all that ragweed! Can’t we do something about it?” I see these people suffer, and I really wish I could do something for them. I love walking the fields, and I wish everyone could enjoy it. But I’m also sad for the plants being accused, because a case of mistaken identity is afoot.
Common ragweed is some fairly nasty stuff. It’s tough-as-nails and can grows in all kinds of dry, barren places that make other plants wither just thinking about them. But it’ll also do just fine in your garden or along the sidewalk. The plant can grow to be from 1-5 feet in height and it has attractive, finely-divided leaves and special spikes, called racemes, of dainty greenish flowers. From these flowers, a single ragweed plant can release over a million pollen grains a day. And therein lies the problem. These microscopic grains take to the wind and go everywhere. To many people this is a serious annoyance, and to some people a ragweed allergy can be literally life-threatening. But remember those flowers? They’re green, not yellow!
What I often see people blame for their ragweed allergies are actually goldenrods. These late-summer bloomers have beautiful yellow compound flowers. Depending on the species, the flowers are arrayed in a wide range of gracefully arching sprays, flat-topped clusters, or brilliant pyramidal clumps. And unlike the light, airy, insidious pollen of common ragweed, the pollen of goldenrods is large, heavy, sticky and stringy. It can’t fly on the wind. Goldenrod pollen doesn’t come to you – you have to go to it.
And here’s the awesome thing about goldenrods. Several hundred species of insects are adapted to “go to” the goldenrods. They drink its nectar and eat its fat, sticky pollen. They nibble its leaves and munch its stems. They suck its juices and live in its tissues. Some insects literally grow to maturity in its stems, causing fascinating deformities called galls. Whether it’s showy goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, early goldenrod or late goldenrod, it’s “right on time” goldenrod for countless insect species who utilize it for food or shelter.
But it gets better. ‘Cause if you’ve got goldenrods, you’ve got the aforementioned bugs. And if you’ve got bugs, you’ve got toads and shrews and a whole slew of critters that eat bugs. You’ve got food and nesting space for bluebirds and indigo buntings, for several varieties of sparrows and countless other birds. You’ve got shelter for rabbits and day-bed cover for deer. You’ve got hunting territory for fox and weasels, for hawks and owls. You’ve got a whole magnificent web of life that radiates out from that simple goldenrod.
So curse the ragweed if you have to. But spare the innocent goldenrods. Even better, take a stroll through the park and check out all the creatures who spend their time on, near or under these remarkable plants.
August 22, 2010
A flash of teeth, a sudden intake of water… and then stillness where once a small fish swam. In these waters lurks a sharp-toothed predator. It’s not a shark, nor is it an alligator, although I can’t even count the number of times school children have asked if we have either living in our Discovery Pond. No, the terror of our deep is the sleek and deadly walleye.
We usually see this large member of the perch family tucked up against the wall of the underwater dome or hidden beneath the logs and vegetation on the bottom. Dark, mottled scales provide it with excellent camouflage. Only the glint of its large eyes and the occasional flick of a fin show that it’s alive. But those large, luminous eyes tip us off to the true nature of this aquatic hunter. With an eyeshine like a cat’s, the walleye hunts by night. A reflective layer of pigment in their eye, called the tapetum lucidum, gives them their excellent night vision. It also helps them see in murky and choppy water.
Whether it was due to our overcast skies or some deeper fish hunger, one of our walleyes was on the hunt by day. For almost thirty minutes it swam near the underwater dome, making passes at the school of baby largemouth bass who are no longer protected by their father.
Walleye are strong distance swimmers, easily able to outpace most prey. However, the seemingly oblivious bass fingerlings were making things easy for our walleye, who took a similarly lazy attitude to the hunt. It slowly cruised past the school again and again, those great eyes scanning for a straggler. The walleye’s spiny front dorsal fin gently rose as it neared its prey, then lowered as the small bass darted a few feet away, just out of reach. Was this showing excitement on the part of the walleye? Or was it simply getting all of its fins prepped for a quick, final dash, like a sprinter stretching his legs? I can’t speak for fish emotions, but in three years I’ve rarely seen the walleye swim with both dorsal fins erect.
And then, in a fraction of a second, it was all over. One small bass lingered a moment too long. The walleye’s mouth parted, revealing wickedly-sharp, backward-pointing canine teeth. Yup, canine teeth in a fish. Muscles tensed along the walleye’s mottled sides and fins exploded in a blur of motion. SNAP! I blinked hard. Only stillness was left where once a small fish swam.
August 12, 2010
Calling all Sun Worshippers
When was the last time you looked up into the face of a flower… that wasn’t on a tree or shrub? If you head out into the restored grasslands at Indian Springs, you’ll be craning your neck and looking toward the sky when you stand besides the compass plant, our slender giant of the prairie.
Everything about this perennial member of the sunflower family is big. Depending on which book you read, they range from 6 to 9.8 feet tall. I have a dried stem from two years ago that measures 9 feet, 5 inches, and this year’s plant looks to be even taller.
The flowers, though not quite as big as those of a common sunflower, are still several inches across. And unlike on a sunflower, there’s lots of ‘em! If a flower head breaks off, the plant secretes a clear, resinous sap. Native American children would chew the dried sap like gum. I’ve tried some myself and found it to be rich and piney to the point of being unpleasant. But then, I grew up with Hubba-Bubba, so my palate’s a bit spoiled.
The deeply-cut, sandpaper-rough leaves look like giant, many-fingered goblin hands reaching from the ground. The basal leaves, those at the base of the plant, give the compass plant its name. As they grow in the sunlight, they usually orient themselves so that the blade edge of the leaf runs from north to south. This means that the flat part of the leaf receives the cooler morning and evening sun while being protected from the hot midday rays.
But one of the most amazing features of the compass plant lies hidden underfoot. It has a taproot that can reach 16 feet or more underground, sucking up water from deep in the soil. Right when your lawn starts to brown in August, these plants just smile, drink up that deep water, and blossom.
Compass plants are sun-lovers. They need the open prairie to survive. I watch their yellow blooms, all facing the east, greet the rising sun as I drive in each morning. But the relationship is a complex one. So much of their biology is geared toward preventing the water loss caused by that same hot sun and the exposed, windy expanse of the prairie. But you won’t hear the compass plants complain, even in the scorcher of a summer we’ve been having.
So if you’ve been feeling the heat, come on out, stand besides a compass plant, and smile at the sun. You won’t feel any cooler, but when you look up into the face of this beautiful flower, you might start to feel that the summer sun isn’t all that bad.
July 12, 2010
Big Bad Bass Daddy
“It’s gonna strike!” I whispered to myself as I snuck into the dome. “Finally!”
After three years of watching and waiting, I still hadn’t seen a largemouth bass suck down some hapless fish in that big ‘ol bucket mouth of his. But now was my chance. The large male was stealthily drifting closer and closer to the school of fish fry, another name for “baby fish.” Seemingly oblivious to his presence, the young’uns continued to pluck near-microscopic daphnia and other invertebrates from the water column against the acrylic pond dome.
“How many will he get?” I wondered. I could almost see the hunger in his golden-brown eye. But then, totally out of character for the fearsome predator I was imagining, he turned to chase away a bluegill that had wandered too close to the fish fry. He’s not trying to eat these babies, he’s trying to protect them! I took a good hard look at the dark stripe running down the side of each baby fish and realized I was watching a bass daddy.
See the dark stripe? It's faded on the adult male, but it marks these fish fry as minuscule largemouth bass.
And a male largemouth bass makes for a good daddy. He first sweeps out a large nest of up to three feet in diameter in the sandy, gravelly shallows. He’ll be visited by a receptive female, and after the egg-laying and fertilization, the female heads back to the deeps and it’s the male who stands guard over the eggs. (He might make room for the eggs of a second or third female if he’s so lucky.) The father-to-be then fans the eggs with his fins to promote water flow and aeration which aids in their development. Once the eggs hatch, the fish fry will school together for about a month. The male will continue to watch over them, chasing away potential predators.
Eventually the male leaves and the school of baby bass breaks apart into smaller juvenile gangs. However, it’s a good thing that male bass stop feeding during the spawning season. If father and child meet later in life, a large bass would be only too happy to swallow down a smaller member of the family, no matter how good of a daddy he might once have been!
This walleye lurked not twenty feet away from the school of fish fry. It was a good thing they had dad nearby to protect them!
July 2, 2010
Would you like the chance to spend a week exploring the ecosystems at Indian Springs Metropark with our park naturalists and some other outstanding staff? If you’re a teen entering the 7th through 10th grade, now is your chance! At the Environmental Discovery Center, we’re teaming up with the Oakland County 4H to offer the 4-H2O Eco Challenge from July 26-29. This will be followed by a bonfire and canoe trip on Friday the 30th. Check out the official website at www.4hecochallenge.com/home for more information or to register.
This eco-challenge will focus on our wetlands and water quality, but for a broader sneak-peak at what this could be like, we spent the month of May exploring the park with our homeschool students. We began the exploration with a 3 ½ mile hike out to Timberland Lake, a secluded natural fen. We immersed our senses in the sounds of wind, water and great-crested flycatchers. We felt and smelt the rich decaying plant matter in the fen’s floating vegetation mat. And we observed tiny jewel-eyed jumping spiders and the green expanse of fuzzy, newly-needled tamarack trees.
Then we broke out some of our high-tech and low-tech tools to take a quantitative look at this awesome ecosystem. We cataloged air, soil and water temperatures, humidity, light intensity, soil type and soil composition, and several other factors.
Just some of the equipment we use on our eco-explorations.
On a second trip we visited our tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, and also a tributary of the Huron River. At each ecosystem we opened up our senses and pulled out our gadgets and research notebooks. Then, with the observations and data from all these unique places under our belts, we started asking the really fun questions: Why does a parameter differ over different ecosystems? How does this affect the animal and plant life that calls each place home? Why does muck smell so bad? Which is the tree with the cat-scratch bark again? And… was that Bigfoot we just saw?
We had more than one brilliant insight (they are a pretty smart group, after all!) …as well as a bunch of questions that just raised more questions. Which is as it should be. What fun would it be without the mystery lurking right outside the door? After all, maybe one of these youths will carry that question and inspiration with them and grow up to be the ecologist or systems programmer or even truck driver who gives us a deeper appreciation of swamps and fens and grasslands and how they all fit together in our lives and the lives of our fellow creatures.
I’ll be happy if they had a bit of fun and end up feeling a little closer to this awesome natural world of ours. And if you’re a teen and you’d like to do some deeper exploration of our park, and also try your hand at amateur film-making, check out the 4-H2O Eco-Challenge at Indian Springs Metropark. We're looking forward to it!
Bigfoot in the Metroparks?! You decide.
June 21, 2010
Part I: The Thing From Outer Space
Did this palm-sized invader scamper out of some 50’s pulp sci-fi magazine? Was it cobbled together from pipe cleaners and craft foam by the Jim Henson company? Could it be lurking just outside your window… right now? Welcome to the weird world of giant insects!
We found this Polyphemus moth “invader” hanging out on the front eaves of the Environmental Discovery Center. With a wingspan of up to six inches, this guy is definitely one of the largest insects in our part of the country. And the term “guy,” in this case, is scientifically accurate. See those giant, feathery antennae? They’re a dead give-away that we’re looking at a male Polyphemus moth. Not only do they add to his Halloween fun-house appearance, but they also allow him to pick up the pheromone trail left by a female of the species.
From the underside, his wings show off a rich blend of cryptic tans and mahogany browns. But the real show begins when he opens them. Each hind wing features a clear spot ringed with bright yellows, deep blacks and electric blues. The Polyphemus moth can keep these spots hidden… or reveal them at will. The theory is, they can function as a startle pattern – a bright flash of color that temporarily distracts a predator. They also give the appearance of two great eyes. To a hungry bird, is that a tender, yummy moth, or… wait a second… is it the face of some big, nasty creature? Heck, I know I’d think twice about picking up a hamburger if it suddenly glared at me with two big eyes.
These eye-spots also give the Polyphemus moth its name. Polyphemus was a mythical Cyclops, a gigantic, one-eyed son of Poseidon that Odysseus encountered in Homer’s The Odyssey. The literary Polyphemus enjoyed feasting on mutton, wine, and the occasional trespassing Greek sailor. Our moth, on the other hand, doesn’t eat at all. It doesn’t even have a functional mouth. Remember those giant feathery antennae? Its whole purpose lies with finding a mate and continuing the species. A short-lived female Polyphemus moth will often emerge from her chrysalis, mate and lay eggs all in one day.
And while we haven’t seen a Polyphemus caterpillar around to snap a picture of for our blog, don’t think that they aren’t freaky, too. When threatened, these fat green guys grind their mandibles together to make clicking and snapping noises. We might enjoy breakfast cereals that “snap, crackle and pop,” but a snapping, clicking caterpillar might seem a little unappetizing, or even downright frightening, to a predator. These clicks also contain ultrasonic frequencies that some scientist believe might be off-putting to the bats and mice – both potential predators – that can hear them.
So the next time you’re enjoying the summer night, take a look around your own eaves and porch lights to see if you can spot some otherworldy invaders of your own!
Part II: Creature from the Green Lagoon
If you haven’t been in our underwater pond dome in a while, now would be a great time to check it out. We’re experiencing 10 to 20 foot visibility in the dome itself, and when you’re out on the boardwalk you can see straight to the bottom of the pond no matter where you are. We’ve experienced this “summer clearing” for the past three years. As a man-made but naturally-regulated ecosystem, the pond visibility changes on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. You can always feel free to call us and we'll let you know what the pond's looking like today.
June 6, 2010
Real Men Like Flowers
It’s true. You don’t have to be a lady to appreciate our showy lady’s-slippers, the largest and arguably most beautiful orchids growing at Indian Springs. To spot them, keep your eyes open as you enter the Huron Swamp at the Woodland Trail trailhead by the nature center. We’re having a good year for them – you can spot several clusters right by the trail and also farther in the tamarack swamp amidst the skunk cabbage.
Showy lady's-slippers, Cypripedium reginae.
But for all their “showiness,” these orchids are tricky, complex flowers. They put out a sweet smell to lure pollinating insects, but offer very little nectar in return. In fact, some insects meet their doom as they crawl into the pouch and discover they can’t find their way back out. But this pollination is vital, because a lady’s-slipper can’t produce viable seeds unless it’s cross-pollinated. Talk about a femme-fatale!
It doesn’t stop with the seeds, either. The young sprouts require a symbiotic relationship with a certain mychorrhizal soil fungus in order to grow. No fungus, no lady’s-slipper. However, in a symbiotic relationship, both organisms benefit. That may not be the case with this flower. According to the excellent Book of Swamp and Bog by John Eastman, some botanists believe that the orchids actually parasitize the fungus. They get a lot more than they give.
The complexity continues. To take it to the human front, if you think this pretty flower’s easy pickin’s for the picking, think again. Some people receive a rash not unlike poison ivy from the oils in our “pretty” flower. This hasn’t stopped people from over-harvesting these and other lady's-slippers in the past, but I like to think that the flowers at least put up a bit of a fight.
If you have a sharp eye, you might also spot some of our small yellow lady's-slippers in the park around this time.
And finally, while the orchid’s name – showy lady’s-slipper – is decidedly feminine (after all, they’re not the "showy man-mocassins"), in the actual Greek, orchis refers to a decidedly male part of the anatomy.
If you’d still feel uncomfortable telling your guy friends that you were out looking for flowers, make sure to mention this one to them: our pitcher plants. Now’s a great time to see them, too. They might have chlorophyll, but they augment their nutrient uptake in poor soil with an insect diet. Think of them as the “steak eaters” of the flower world.
A last glimpse of a hapless fly. Shot taken by my coworker Dave out at Timberland Lake.
Like all flowers, these beauties only last for a short while. If you’d like to see them, now’s the time to head on over!
May 31, 2010
Yoga on the Mount
I’ve always thought the circle of stone benches atop our prairie “outwash overlook” looks a bit like a miniature Stonehenge. So imaging my surprise when I glanced up to see a group of druids… well, actually patrons… practicing yoga on these “standing stones” of ours.
Now, you have to hop an ocean to see the real Stonehenge, but our prairie stone circle is far closer. If you haven’t been up to the overlook, give it a shot. You’ll get one of the best panoramic views in the whole park. When you look to the northwest you’ll see a shadowy ridge of land far out beyond the closest treeline. The backbone of this far ridge is a pile of sand and gravel called a moraine. We don’t know exactly who erected those standing stones in England, but we know our moraine was left by the glaciers. It marks the northern edge of the Huron River watershed. The rain that falls to the south of it runs into our Huron Swamp, which feeds the Huron River. When you visit Indian Springs, you’re truly at the headwaters of this magnificent waterway.
And if you feel so inclined, and want to try out some yoga from atop the prairie, perhaps you could clear your mind and imagine the strong, graceful flow of the river passing below you, or maybe the sleek, supple muscles of the deer and mink who call it home… and see if this helps your form. Did the druids ever hitch up their robes and perform meditative calisthenics? I dunno. Maybe if they were on our outwash overlook they would. After all, the thing really does remind me of our own little Stonehenge, and I’ve watched ‘em do yoga up there.
If you kinda squint and turn your head to the side... it looks just like our outwash overlook... right?
May 21, 2010
Putting the "Quest" back in "Question"
There it was again, that rich, raucous trill. “What the heck kind of woodpecker is that?” a much younger me asked my much younger naturalist self. I had heard this call before, usually in this favorite stretch of woods, always in the spring and summer. Of course, most people in our part of Michigan have heard this call. I bet you have. But this was the first time I really heard it, the first time I turned the melody and timbre over in my mind and wondered, what animal speaks with this voice?
“Woodpecker” was my hunch. I had spent enough time with their laughing, cackling, lively voices to find a similarity in the rich trill I was hearing. And I had spent enough time in these woods to notice how many of these avian head-bangers regularly worked their way across snag and branch on a relentless search for insects. Heck, this was the place where I first witnessed a too-big-for-real-life Pileated woodpecker plucking and eating the berries from a poison sumac.
We see and hear what we know, what we're familiar with. The lazy part of me wanted to lump this trilling song in the “woodpecker” category and call it a day. But the problem was, I had watched and listened to these woodpeckers, at least casually, and I knew enough to doubt myself. Did this call really match?
So I hit the books and the audio recordings. I memorized pint’s and peent’s and wakka-wakka-wakka’s. Nope, none of those. I asked other questions. How high do woodpeckers nest? And what height was I hearing this call from? Do woodpeckers call from within their nesting holes? Is that why I couldn’t find this phantom singer? More research, more searching. But I couldn’t find my answer, and this all happened long enough ago that I can’t really remember if I gave up or if I slowly settled into being comfortable with the mystery.
Jump forward almost two years. The same stretch of trail. A plump shadow on the back of a basswood leaf gave me pause. Is that a gray tree frog? I used to routinely fish them out of the sinks at the campground where I worked during my summer vacations, but I had never seen one out here, in these woods. I watched as its mottled throat ballooned out and the little amphibian began to sing... a rich, raucous, familiar trill. A gentle warmth spread through my body as I sat down, right in the middle of the trail, and observed the little guy for a good 15 minutes. Me and a frog. Two years of searching. When I finally continued down the trail, I couldn't stop smiling.
And the thing is, I saw two more of them before I made it to my destination. All at eye-level, all right off the trail. After never seeing a one in those woods (but hearing plenty of them). What had changed? Was it dumb luck? Had I learned to see a creature that had always been there... even though I was looking for the wrong species? (Heck, woodpeckers are in a whole different class!) Or had I lived with this question long enough and visited these woods often enough that I was ready for the answer? Had I passed the "gray treefrog" test?
Or how about this: What if someone had simply told me, two years earlier, “Oh, that noise? That's a gray treefrog.” How would my life be different? Would I still have this warm, full, heart-swelling feeling when I find one clinging to the front window of the Environmental Discovery Center?
May 9, 2010
Why the long face… er, neck?
What strange creature is lurking in our affectionately-named “muck pond?” I heard rumors of a turtle with a “freakishly long neck” from a few children as they explored the area around the Environmental Discovery Center. Never one to pass up an interesting sighting, I headed out and snapped a few pictures of the culprit for you.
Aha! Our long-necked friend with the bright yellow throat is none other than a Blanding’s turtle.
A Blanding’s turtle does have a long neck. When you see that brilliant yellow chin and that dark, spotted shell, there’s no mistaking one. The neck’s not for show, though. Our turtle will prowl along the bottom of a pond with its neck just half-extended, looking for a tasty morsel like, say, a crawfish or some other aquatic invertebrate. When the turtle finds one it’ll snap that neck out full-length, open it’s mouth, and suck the hapless critter in.
The Blanding’s has a notched upper lip, giving it a happy turtle smile. However, they’ll hiss something vicious if you pick them up or get too close when they’re crawling on land, but they usually rely on their tough shell to protect them rather than biting. The lower shell, called a plastron, has a hinge like a box turtle’s. Some Blanding’s turtles can close up their shell relatively tightly, but others can't.
A close-up. A painted turtle's sharing the log in the backgroud.
Blanding’s turtles are a species of special concern in Michigan. This means that, while they’re not yet endangered, they might be headed in that direction. They’re protected under Michigan law, and it’s illegal to kill one or remove it from the wild. Sadly, this doesn’t always stop people. I remember one poor, long-necked Blanding's who had been raised in a bathtub for close to ten years. Its nails had become curved and awkward from constantly scrabbling against the hard surface. That’s enough to give me a long face.
Fortunately, lower Michigan is a bit of a stronghold for this cool turtle. They’re relatively common in our park. But across their range the species is suffering because of habitat loss. Mama turtles require dry uplands for laying their eggs, and these uplands need to be adjacent to the ponds, swamps and lakes where they’ll spend most of their adult lives.
So if you want to do something nice for all our mother turtles out there on Mother's day, Blanding’s and otherwise, support your local conservation organizations that protect animals’ habitats right where you live. That, and save the bathtub for the rubber ducky.
April 26, 2010
A violet by any other name...
When you’re out for a walk and discover a flower that looks like a violet… and smells like a violet… and even tastes like a violet… but isn’t, well, violet-colored… can it still be a violet? Why, of course!
Our familiar common blue violet, Viola papilioancea. When most people think of violets, they think of these guys. We see them along our woodland trails, and you’ve probably run into them outside your doorstep or in your lawn.
We have seventy-seven species of violet growing in North America, with closer to nine hundred species across the globe. Most people recognize their heart-shaped leaves and their colorful, irregular flowers. Many of them are the familiar bluish-purple color, but they also come in combinations of yellow, white, pink and red.
Here’s a yellow species from our park, the downy yellow violet, Viola pubescens.
But why bother with violets? These bright little flowers of the woods and fields are almost as familiar as dandelions. Can they compare to our other spring wildflowers like the exotic-sounding bloodroot, the beautiful and fishily-named trout lily, the ephemeral wood anemone (nothing like a sea anemone, trust me), the delicate, electric-pink-streaked spring beauty or the brilliant large-flowered trillium?
Here’s a white one! The Canada violet, Viola canadensis. These shots were all taken on a short 30-minute walk through the park.
Violets exemplify how exotic the familiar can actually be. We’ve all seen violets before, but how many of us have eaten them? (I wasn’t kidding about the whole tasting thing!) They can be nibbled raw and the leaves are extremely high in vitamin A and C, not to mention a heck of a lot more nutritious than iceberg lettuce.
And what about a violet's volatile potential? Many of them have seed pods that literally explode at the touch, flinging their seeds several feet from the parent plant. Did my college ex-girlfriend know that she was handing me a deadly biological explosive when she gave me a potted violet for a gift? Looking back on it, maybe she did. (OK, OK, I'm exaggerating about the deadly part... at least for the violet.)
Our most common violet along the woodland trail. It’s not a familiar blue violet, but the cool and somewhat daring long-spurred violet, Viola rostrata. Can you tell how it got its name?
Or how 'bout this: Did you know that violets flower again, later in the season? These secondary flowers stay low to the earth and never open. Because of this, they're self-fertilized, producing seeds that lack the genetic variety of cross-pollinated offspring, but that are very likely to thrive in the same environment as the parent plant. Which works out fine, since individual violets can be picky about where they’ll grow. It's like having a clone child. They might not be able to cut it in the big city, but they'll do just fine working at your side on the family farm.
Common blues, a long-spurred, and two wood anemones, just for flavor.
We're drawn to the exotic. I'd love to have my “Justin was here” moment exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota or the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. But I also know that I could spend the next 50 years exploring my park right here and hardly scratch the surface of all there is to learn and experience. So by all means, come on out and search for the small yellow lady's slippers, the pitcher-plants, and the rare orchids at Timberland Lake. I know I will. But before you leave, take a moment to appreciate the common and completely remarkable violets, too.
April 13, 2010
I can never decide which I like more in the spring, the dawn chorus of songbirds or the twilight symphony of frogs. We’ve been hearing the trill of American toads these last few days and the spring peepers, eastern chorus frogs and wood frogs are still going strong. And as beautiful as they sound to my ears, they must sound even sweeter to the tympanum (that’s frog-speak for “ears”) of the females.
Frog ear (aka tympanum) -- the big round disc right behind the eye of this green frog.
As much as I love frog calls, the thing that really amazes me is how these little guys even survive, especially through the winter. They’ve got no insulative fur or feathers, no bony scales or plates, and no sharp claws or teeth to speak of (though they do have little nubbins of teeth on their upper jaws and the roof of their mouths for grasping prey). Their skin is so thin and permeable that oxygen from the water can pass right through it… and so can the bug spray or sunscreen on your hands. If you like these little guys like I do, make sure to have clean hands if you’re going to touch them. Even better, dip those clean hands of yours in the lake or pond first to get them nice and moist and only then reach out to touch one of our smooth, slippery amphibians.
A male wood frog takes a break from singing in our vernal pond.
What a frog'll do to attract a girl!
But back to survival. How do these unassuming creatures do it? Let’s look at our wood frog from last weekend. When winter comes a’ knockin’ this frog buries itself beneath the leaf litter and soil of the forest floor… and freezes. Literally. Its heart ceases to pump. Its brain ceases to think. And a good portion of the fluids in its body freeze solid. But it doesn’t all freeze. Wood frogs have special proteins in their blood that cause it to freeze first. While this is happening, sugars flood their cells like gooey antifreeze so that the cells themselves stay un-frozen and relatively undamaged. Most of the freezing happens in the fluids between the cells. Wood frogs can survive several freeze-thaw cycles during the winter and, come spring, they thaw completely and literally return to life.
The singing (and winter freezing) pays off! Here's a happy wood frog couple in amplexus. The smaller male is on top.
However, don’t go making a frog-cicle out of just any frog you find! Our wood frogs, spring peepers and eastern chorus frogs – all of our early-season, small-bodied guys – can survive some degree of freezing. Our summer singers, the bigger bull frogs and green frogs, make it through the cold season at the bottom of a pond or lake. Their metabolism slows way down and they absorb enough oxygen to survive right from the water through that “thin skin” of theirs. But it’s not a true hibernation. Even in the winter (and even underwater) they still move around a bit. Otherwise we wouldn’t see frog tracks on our pond dome like we did back in early March.
But enough science for the day. Head out to your nearest park, pond, ditch, swamp or vernal pool and enjoy the spring symphony! And take a kid with you while you’re at it!
April 4, 2010
Happy Easter from the Environmental Discovery Center!
All this brush around the vernal pond with nary a rabbit sign in sight...
Our eastern cottontails were proving elusive as I sought the perfect Easter shot for you all today. However, as I checked the brushy edges around our vernal pond for rabbit sign, I couldn't help but notice all the frogs! Our chorus frogs and spring peepers have been calling for over two weeks now, but the wood frogs have just started with their quacking and chortling over the last few days. I once had a patron describe their call to me as "...kinda like stepping on an old rubber ducky." Not bad, I thought. Always on the lookout for a good way to mimic animal calls, I tried this at home, but after several stomps the rubber ducky ended up sounding a little too flat.
(Dumb joke in honor of Rosco the Clown, who always makes our Easter Egg Hunt program feel like a party. Our program this Saturday was no exception. Thanks, Rosco!)
Enjoy the rest of this beautiful weekend and stay tuned for more about these awesome amphibians!
...but what really says Easter better than a frog?
March 18, 2010
The Snow Fleas’ Last Hurrah
It was the sound of a soft rain, but harder around the edges. Less wet. More like hundreds of miniscule, muted Jiffy-Pops going off at my feet. What have we here? The leaf litter on a good hundred feet of trail was covered with tiny black specks. Moving specks. Ahh, snow fleas.
Have you ever been surrounded by snow fleas? By hundreds of thousands of tiny, jumping insects? But let me clear something up before you read any further. Snow fleas aren’t actually fleas. They're not parasites and they don’t suck blood. In fact, we’d call them detrivores – one of those creatures that lives in the soil and leaf litter and dines on mold, fungus, algae and decaying organic matter – although they have turned to cannibalism on occasion. They’re also technically a springtail, order Collembola, suborder Arthropleona, family Poduridae. Scientific name Achorutes nivicolus. And I misspoke earlier. They’re not even considered a true insect anymore. So, while they’re not a flea in the least, to you and me they’re the snow flea.
Every leaf within 100 feet of me was covered in tiny black snow fleas. But where's the snow?
Where they do resemble fleas is in their ability to jump, although the mechanism is completely different. True fleas jump with powerful legs. Snow fleas jump with this slick thing called a furcula. It looks like two little tails, and they hook under the abdomen. When the hook releases, the tails snap and catapult the little bugger faster than your eyes can follow. Which is why, when you crouch down to look at them, they seem to be magically disappearing and reappearing. That's the work of the spring in springtail!
A close-up, courtesy of wikipedia
Usually, they look like a whole mass of pepper grains sprinkled on the snow during warm winter days, especially at the bases of trees, and especially later in the winter. They can keep moving because they make their own antifreeze, a protein rich in the amino acid glycin.
How they usually appear in clusters on the snow.
There are a few theories on why they gather in big groups. It may be to feed on algae that’s growing near the snow’s surface on sunny winter days. They may also gather together on mass migrations after having eaten all the detritus in an area. Although a springtail migration may only take them a few feet. Another reason, especially as spring approaches, is that they get together for some sprintail lovin’. Black bears, as big as they are, love to lap up these spring breeding clusters.
There's still a little bit of ice in the low swampy places, but no fleas here!
What surprised me was the lack of snow for these snow fleas. That, and the sheer number. I usually see them in a big flea cluster on the white stuff, maybe a few hundred individuals. The little buggers around me probably numbered into the millions! Talk about spring(tail) fever! But I have to remind myself that they’re here year-round, living in the soil and leaf litter. In fact, a square meter of soil may contain over 100,000 springtails of many different species. So it’s not a “last hurrah,” after all. If you look hard enough, which probably means gettin’ down on your hands and knees and poking through the leaves and other rich, moist dead stuff on the forest floor, you should be able to find them. Like so many things in nature, they’re there if you open your senses to ‘em. So get out there and let us know if you find yourself surrounded like I did!
Yikes! I couldn't even kneel down to take these pictures without sending some of the little guys to the great arthropod afterlife!
March 16, 2010
More and more signs of life are being noticed around the pond. We had a muskrat swimming near the shore of the Discovery Pond on Sunday. This afternoon, as a home school group took a tree inventory around the Marsh Pond, we startled many frogs that hopped right back into the water!
Eastern chorus frogs, spring peepers, and even two early-season northern leopard frogs (like this guy we snuck up on by our fen pond) are out calling to attract the ladies.
The pond dome was cleaned on Saturday. Shortly thereafter we saw a crayfish and a frog on either side of the tunnel, walking along the cement foundation. You can see out the acrylic quite well, but there is a lot of green algae in the water column, so visibility is limited.
March 8, 2010
an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water
This haiku may be the most famous poem written in the Japanese language. Composed by the master Matsuo Basho, it epitomizes the haiku form of 5 / 7 / 5 moras, which are similar to, but not quite the same as, our syllables. On the surface, it’s a childishly simple poem of a frog jumping into a pond. But like all great haiku, so much more lurks beneath the surface. It could be a metaphor for a single thought rippling across the quiet mind of a Zen master. It could also be interpreted as Basho’s moment of awakening, as when the Buddha found enlightenment by contemplating a star from beneath his Bodhi tree. Or it may be read as a perfectly sublime artistic snapshot of nature. But to me, it brings to mind fish lips and frog toes.
Yup, you heard me. Fish lips and frog toes.
Not those fish lips!
You see, we still have about 7 inches of ice on the pond. Which means there’s still time. ‘Cause as soon as that ice melts (and it’s melting fast with these gorgeous, sunny days), our volunteer diver will be out to clear the sediment and grime off of our underwater pond viewing dome. And when he does that, he’ll be obliterating several weeks’ worth of fish tracks.
That’s right. Fish tracks. And underwater frog tracks, too.
Did this guy...
Sure, I was excited when I stood in the pond dome last fall and watched a Devil’s crayfish, claws held high, hold his ground against a curious largemouth bass. But even when there isn’t this “nature show” excitement, I like to stop in the dome, gaze up, and marvel at all the winter stories around me. These marks here, I remember, were made by a walleye who rested, almost motionless, for two days against the acrylic of the dome. And this trail of swishes here – they look like they were made by a sunfish belly. And all these little round spots – throw on some lipstick, and they’d be unmistakable as fish lips sucking hapless invertebrates off the dome in a final death-kiss.
Scant seconds before this sunfish fingerling left its kisser-print on the dome.
Underwater fish prints. Like Basho’s haiku, they might seem simple… or even dull. But use some inquiry and some imagination, look a little deeper, and they might impress you with their mysteries. Or just mess with your friends when you tell them you’ve been doing some late-season fish tracking “under the ice.” But check them out soon, ‘cause before long the pond really will be stirred by the “plops!” and “kaplunks!” of smooth, slippery frogs, and the fish tracks will disappear with the turn of the season.
A whole tapestry of stories about to disappear!
March 7, 2010
Guess who’s here?
The sandhill cranes are back in the park! We heard their trumpet-like call for the first time this spring on Saturday, March 6th and saw them flying overhead. They have been seen walking near the fen and lower pond, and also by the nature center. This morning, we were able to take a few pictures. If you are out at our park make sure to keep your eyes (and ears) open for these magnificent birds!
February 23, 2010
“The ideal attitude of the tracker is that of a detective.” – Tom Brown, Jr.
A skunk wanders in the warm days before the big storm.
Have you ever walked across a beach and then turned to watch your footsteps disappear with the next crashing wave? Now imagine that one of the San people of South Africa were walking there with you. He might crouch down, place his eyes next to the earth, and tell you your gender just from looking at your tracks (obvious, you think). Then he tells you your weight (suck in the gut, but he’s right), that you had hurt your left leg when you were a child (how does he know?), that you have to go to the bathroom (you do have to go… and this is gettin’ kinda creepy) and that you're feeling a little bit sad (these are footprints, not mood rings... right?!).
Raccoon tracks - front foot on top, hind foot below
Most of the great tracking cultures, including the San of South Africa, the Apache of the American Southwest and the Bushmen of Australia, live in sandy areas. With the help of this excellent substrate, they turned tracking into an art form. Why? Because they were hungry! Their lives depended on their ability to gather information from the earth and to track game. And it’s astounding what they could learn about an animal from its tracks.
The raccoon shuffle
With supermarkets and fast-food drive-throughs, us modern Americans tend to lack the hunger for tracking that these cultures have. And most parts of Michigan lack broad expanses of sand. But with our recent winter storm, we’ve got snow! Head outside, especially if you have children, and do some tracking. Deep snow can actually hide many of the details of an animal’s footprints, but with light or crusty snow it’s amazing how much you can see. For the best view, get down low and place the track between you and the sun. The contours of the track stand out better that way, especially when the sun is low in the sky.
Deep snow made it almost impossible to make out fine details of the individual feet, but I could tell from location, size, and habit (it went up a tree!) that these were made by a red squirrel.
Put on your boots and warm clothes and follow a set of tracks for an hour or so. See where that deer or raccoon or eastern cottontail rabbit went. And ask questions like a detective. Why did the animal travel here? Is there food or shelter nearby? What was it doing when it made this track? If it stopped, is there something that would have drawn its attention? Where is it now? How did it feel to be this deer or this raccoon or this cottontail? You might find that you learn something that goes beyond what you would have discovered in a field guide. And, if you do it long enough, the next time you’re walking with a friend on the beach, you might be able to glance down at their footprints and say, “time to head to the bathroom, isn’t it?”
Welcome to the Environmental Discovery Center blog! If you visit the pond dome today, you will notice the distinct lack of light under the ice. That's right, the pond is completely frozen over, with snow on top. This limits the sunlight that can penetrate to the bottom of the pond. What effect do you think this has on the plants and animals living underwater?
Despite the ice and snow on top of the pond, lots is happening in the water below!