Long Winter’s Nap is Over

Tuesday marked the first day of Spring. You may have noticed or heard the return of robins, bluebirds, and geese. While we often don’t see them, mammals will begin to emerge from their dens and underground areas of hibernation. One of these mammals is the Black Bear.

Image result for yogi bear

Yogi Bear

These cute and cuddly animals begin venturing out around the first week of April. After having “hibernated” for the past several months, they will be looking for food (foraging) first. Black bears mainly eat plant parts–buds of trees in early spring and they are notoriously known to eat berries in summer. A favorite food is the nut from hazelnut trees. They are also opportunists: if people leave food, garbage, bird feeders, or uncovered compost bins out where they can smell it, they will mostly likely eat whatever they can reach. This gives them the reputation of being ‘nuisance’ animals. We are using or living in a habitat they prefer (sometimes young males wander outside of their habitat)…maybe they think we are the nuisance.

Now, hibernating isn’t actually what they are doing during the winter months. Scientists call it ‘torpor’ which sounds like stupor, maybe that’s where they came up with it. Torpor is not a true hibernation. Many arctic animals who have no winter food source (plants or bugs) hibernate to save energy since they are unable to replenish energy: their body temperature drops to match the outdoor temperature, their heart rate drops and their breathing slows. Torpor is a little different in that the bears’ body temperatures are relatively high and they are able to wake. Female bears give birth during this time (around mid-January) and wake to rearrange themselves to accommodate their cubs and return to sleep. This may be why there is a saying: “don’t poke a sleeping bear” because they can awake easily, whereas true hibernators will awake for nothing.

The black bears of the Midwest are not as dangerous as Grizzlies or Polar bears. This doesn’t change the fact that they are very large animals. They can reach up to 7 feet tall (more impressive when they stand on their hind legs) and average 500 pounds. It’s this body size that allows them to sleep in torpor rather than hibernate–they have larger fat stores than a tiny little chipmunk. So, those cute little cubs that you so want to pet and cuddle are generally protected by a female somewhere in the 5′, 300 pound range. Not something people generally want to cross. They really aren’t something to fear though. As with most wild animals, a good healthy respect will go along way, and especially keep your wits about you in the spring when they are famished.



Green Snakes and Beer

From a humble missionary to excessive amounts of green colored beer, what is the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day? I can assure you in the 18th century the celebrations were much quieter–people celebrated by going to church the second quietest place I know (behind libraries). I don’t care how you celebrate, I love holidays even the ones that have nothing to do with my own family heritage (Cinco de Mayo may be my favorite non-heritage holiday) mainly because I like food and a holiday is a great excuse to try new foods. Before celebrations commence, here is a little background on the day and like many traditions it absolutely has something to do with natural resources and conservation!

According to legend, St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, chased snakes from the island and into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast he undertook on top of a hill, thus ridding the island of the reptiles in the 5th century. However, historians say snakes have never inhabited the island. The reptiles are slow to colonize new areas and they just didn’t make it to Ireland before the Ice Age. Afterwards, the island was (and is) surrounded by water. A little harder to cross a water bridge than a land bridge.

Even though this folk tale is not true, it is an excellent reminder of what could happen if the island became inhabited by any species of snake or other non-native animal. Islands seem to be a make or break place, both fragile and resilient. Some invasive species have been (purposefully or accidentally) introduced to islands such as Australia and Hawai’i. Some have survived and wreaked havoc while others have not. The brown tree snake has done damage on Guam and other islands, and scientists fear it could also be a threat to Ireland. Invasive species removal can be incredibly costly and take years to control–many of them are never completely eradicated.

While St. Patrick is really celebrated for religious reasons, this story connects to modern conservation and stewardship initiatives. Invasive species prevention is important, and not just when it comes to getting rid of things that make us shiver (even the pretty invasive are evil). With Earth Month right around the corner, that is something we can all drink too.


We Speak For the Trees

Image result for the loraxThe Lorax said “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Though the story is comprised of imaginary characters and a great deal of whimsy, the message transcends fiction, ages, and times. As the Lorax is a fictional character, and we are the highest evolved animals on Earth WE are the ones who speak for the trees. Our voices differ, our agendas differ, we are not one single Lorax. How can we all come together to support and understand what the trees need?

Although the Lorax was a fury little creature, he seemed to be quite old and wise. Without the connection to nature our ancestors had, we turn to books and lessons-learned to understand the wilderness. Forest management takes a great deal of study and even then, it’s not an exact science. There are still many differing ideas and opinions which are visible in different agencies and those behind the major decisions (National Park Service, National Forest Service, state departments, county departments…).

On a smaller scale, what can we as individual landowners and citizens of this broad world do? Step outside of yourself for a bit–as the alpha mammal, humans often make near-sighted decisions that affect themselves right now. We are here for a short time. The Earth is here for the long run, and most trees in our backyard will outlive us and some will even outlive our grandchildren. This may mean very little to many people. So, what can trees do for us? The list is really endless so I’ll just hit on a few:

  • Lower energy costs: provide shade to lessen the need for artificial air in the summer; slow/dissipate winds in winter months to improve heat retention
  • Increase property values
  • Improve the water quality of your groundwater and the water of lakes, streams, and rivers
  • Decrease sedimentation, chemical run-off, and soil erosion
  • Stress recovery: studies show spending time in a forested area can improve your mood, lower tension, improve mental health and creativity as described in an article cited in Unplug to Recharge

Trees/forests are essential for the wildlife (and plants too) with which we share our space. Certain tree species are essential for some animals. In Michigan, the Kirtland’s Warbler depends on Jack Pine for their breeding habitat. Standing dead trees and downed trees both provide important cover, nesting space, and food sources for mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and the lot. Between the personal benefits and the indirect ecological benefits, we should be able to find at least one reason to speak for the trees. Check out this amazing video of a man who speaks through his actions:


“To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, and to live as a people, we must have trees” —Theodore Roosevelt 

Lions and Lambs

If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb.

Where does this stuff come from? There are several ideas ranging from astrological signs to religious signs. In a region where seasons really mean something, it seems to have more to do with the weather and the coming of spring. From February 1st (groundhog day) onward we just want winter to be over, that much is clear by these interesting…traditions. The forecast for the first few days of March are very tame and lamb-like, so the prediction suggests the end days of March will be the opposite, lion-like.

Whatever you believe, this March the saying coincides with World Wildlife Day (Saturday, March 3). This is a newer, world awareness day dedicated to wildlife set forth by the United Nations and supported by several conservation organizations. Each year focuses on a different theme and this year the theme is Big Cats–including Lions. These beautiful, majestic, and feared creatures are not only hunted illegally many of their habitats are shrinking or becoming fragmented. The Puma, or Mountain Lion/Cougar/Panther, is found in North America. Surprisingly, it’s status is of “least concern.” They have still suffered from significant habitat loss and their home range no longer includes the Eastern U.S. (various sighting say otherwise, but I’m not here to dispute or defend). Their status in Central and South America is largely unknown meaning there is a possibility numbers are declining. Least concern? Maybe on a global level and compared to the other big cats.

Our funny little traditions can have more meaning when we dig deep and make connections. The theme for World Wildlife Day will not always be Big Cats, but that doesn’t mean the issues have been solved. Conservation is an ongoing effort and this old world saying is a great reminder of the issues within and outside of our own little worlds.

Learn more


Another acronym. This is a good one though–Great Backyard Bird Count. Maybe you’ve heard of this event, and maybe you’ve thought about getting involved with citizen science projects in the past. This project is the perfect launch pad.  The Great Backyard Bird Count is simple, can be done from the comfort of your own home (if you choose), and is important information for ornithologists (bird biologists).

For most citizen scientists, having a fun project isn’t enough, they want know their contributions mean something. Why is this an important project? There are many science based projects that have little funding and rely on citizens to contribute in order to carry on or even make policy changes. GBBC gathers information on bird populations and movements and with such a huge number of people participating (160,000+) it provides a really large, worldwide picture. Scientists are able to use the data collected to investigate far-reaching questions–questions about climate, migrations, diversity, and even disease. Identifying anomalies allows limited funding to be used more efficiently. The more data collected, the better the picture.

Red-tailed Hawk by Peter Ferguson, 2015 GBBC

So, mark your calendar and prep for next weekend’s Great Backyard Bird Count and become a citizen scientist! Not an avid birder or not completely confident with your identification? There are a few great apps to help you identify: Merlin Bird ID and Audubon Birds are two useful apps. I like Merlin because it also has recordings of the calls or songs that you can play–it’s fun when the real birds reply. If you want to walk around in the woods to identify birds, eBird is the app now linked with the GBBC so you can enter your findings right from your smart device. No excuse, you have plenty of time to get acquainted with these apps and set up your GBBC account (for free), and, again, you can do it from your home–grab a cup of coffee and count the birds out your window, easy-peasy. Follow the link below. Happy birding!

Get Started

Day of Shadow

By the time you read this, the news is already out. As we are not one of the three P’s of importance: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, or Phil, combined with our northern Michigan locale where snow falls when it pleases and winter lasts as long as it well likes–today doesn’t really seem like a “holiday.” Why do we care what a groundhog “predicts” when we know winter will probably last more than six weeks beyond today?

Punxsutawney has been celebrating Groundhog Day since 1887. Everybody has their thing. Over one hundred and twenty five years is quite impressive. So how do you keep a seemingly meaningless festival and holiday alive for so long? There are three components: 1.) a mascot, aka Phil the groundhog who has a nice gig working one day (not even a whole day) a year with people fawning over him, 2.) cabin fever, people cooped up inside for almost two months, getting stir crazy are easier to coax out of their norms, 3.) campfires & beer, there is something magical about a campfire in winter plus if you put one at a destination point people are more likely to keep on trekking with the promise of warmth…beer speaks for itself. At the festival in Punxsutawney, PA “campfires and beer” translates to an all night festival culminating in fireworks and Phil’s weather prediction (and hopefully s’mores since there is a campfire).

Groundhog day actually began many moons ago in a land now known as Germany (but at the time had no such name). It also began with a badger, not a groundhog. People then were a little more in-tune with nature and believed the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring and signaled when to plant their gardens. When Germans immigrated to the U.S. they brought this tradition with them, but substituted the groundhog due to the lack of badgers in PA. If they had made it to Wisconsin maybe we would celebrate Badger Day…

Now one story of Groundhog Day claims “By the time the first German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania they probably understood that [the badger had the power to predict the coming spring] was not true but the tradition continued. Who’s to say it’s not, sure Groundhog Day is a bit overdone and animals can’t speak English so we really don’t know what they are trying to tell us. However, as the plants and animals around us are much wiser, or more sensitive, to temperature triggers, it is possible that the badger didn’t necessarily predict spring but gave people a clue about coming changes in the weather.

What animal signs help you plan your outdoor activities? 

World Wetland Day

World Wetlands Day 2018

This handy dandy info-graphic pretty much says it all. The end.

I suppose I can elaborate a little. World Wetlands Day was established in 1971 and occurs annually on February 2. This year’s theme, if you will, is about wetlands in urban areas. While Missaukee County is quite rural, growth and expansion is still happening in our towns and before you know it, Lake City will be a suburb of Traverse City. More and more people are moving to Northern Michigan, and Traverse City is a pretty hopping town. I don’t have statistics on how fast it is growing, but as property values increase there more and more people are looking to the surrounding areas to live and grow their businesses. Being surrounded by the Great Lakes, Michigan is home to a great number of wetlands. They definitely shouldn’t be on the bottom of the list of items to consider during city expansion.

Most feelings aside about urban sprawl, what does this mean for our precious wetlands? First, did you know that ‘Wetland’ is an over-arching term that encompasses many different types? The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) divides wetlands into four categories: Swamps, Marshes, Fens, Bogs. Each of these categories is further divided bringing the total wetland types to around 12, each unique and truly beautiful and ecologically important. Okay, you caught me, with an environmental background I suppose you could say I’m a “bunny-hugger.” Probably, I can never get close enough to a bunny to give it a hug. Wetlands are not only significant to scientists who understand their ecological importance and people who give a hoot about them (fellow bunny-huggers). They are important for all of us, and as urbanization continues to grow everyone should be aware of them and what they can do for us. See info-graphic. I really don’t think that I could explain it better. I guess one item that is worth mentioning is: as wetlands decrease so does plant and animal diversity.

World Wetland Day could boil down to one idea: respect. As we continue to abuse the Earth we live on, eventually it will get tired of supporting us. The end of the first month of 2018 is coming to a close, and you may have broken all of the resolutions you promised yourself but no one ever said you can’t make new resolutions throughout the year! Try this–a resolution to explore at least one type of wetland this year. Simple with plenty of room to grow.

Sharing is Caring

Finally winding down after a month and a half of holiday dinners, parties, and celebrations. You are probably starting to really settle into winter now–knitting, crafting, movie marathons, and buckets of hot cocoa. Now is actually the perfect time to plan for spring planting.

Saturday, January 27 is Seed Swap Day! This has been a national day for the past 12 years, but seed swapping and/or sharing is a common practice among flower and vegetable gardeners. My grandma had a beautiful flower garden with a diverse variety of poppies–each fall she would snip the heads off and save the seeds to share with friends, relatives, and neighbors. She didn’t need a specific day to tell her when to share seeds, she just had them on hand for those who wanted them.

Seed Swap day is about more than sharing the seeds from your flower or vegetable garden. It encourages us to save plant diversity. Seed Savers Exchange points out the Irish potato famine of the mid 1800s: one variety of potato planted + new fungus = the primary food source wiped out, starvation, and death. This catastrophe teaches us a very important lesson we should not forget anytime soon. Plant diversity is critical! How many gardening experiences resulted in bumper crops of one vegetable, and a less than stellar showing for another? Last year, I planted two types of pepper: poblano and banana. The banana peppers didn’t do anything…the plants did’t hardly grow more than 6″, but the poblanos did great and they were happily utilized.

Seed swap day can give you the opportunity to share your heirloom seeds that have been passed down from your grandparents’ garden. Seeds from hybrids are not the best choice as the next generation will not be “true-to-type” aka, it won’t produce the same plant as the parent, and will often be less vigorous. Open-pollinated: pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms–no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals. These are great for seed saving and therefore swapping; also heirloom varieties. Consider this when saving, sharing, and accepting seeds. Maybe you think “heirloom” is a bunch of boo-hockey. That’s fine, but if you want to save seeds…not have to pour over the seed catalog every January, and share with other gardening enthusiasts consider at least getting non-hybrid. I get it, for backyard gardeners who are also working 40 to 60 hour/week jobs, hybrids are tempting. Many have been crossed with all of the best traits, and who doesn’t want the largest, prettiest, shiniest, most perfectly shaped vegetable that is practically guaranteed to produce high yields? If you’ve ever had an heirloom variety tomato (I’m specifically thinking of Brandywine) you’ll know that some hybrids just don’t compare.

Seed Swap day is two weeks away–plenty of time to gather the seeds you may have already saved from last season, package them into adorable little paper packs, and throw a fun, garden-themed party with your friends, neighbors, relatives (unless you’re tired of them from all the holidays…). I may not have mine own planned, but ideas are abundant and ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin seeds are waiting to be shared.

Here is a link for seed packet templates and–More information about seed saving

Pearl, Swirl, Burl

Have you ever wondered what those odd looking growths are on tree trunks or branches? If you are a wood turner you may already know and probably keep your eye out for them when you are driving or walking through the woods.


The burl tree. “Burl” is just one word for the abnormal growths protruding from all over the above tree. So how are these formed? Burls are made from abnormal proliferation of xylem production by the vascular cambium, or tree hyperplasia. Yeah. Cambium is the layer of actively dividing cells–they make the growth rings for each growing season–and it lies in between the xylem, or wood tissues, and phloem tissues. If the cambium cells divide more rapidly for a longer period of time in a highly localized area it creates this big lump sticking out of the tree. Viruses, bacterium, or fungus can be the root cause of the disruption that leads to over dividing cambium cells. Basically, a burl is a prettier, tree version of a wort.



Now, what makes the pattern of a burl really interesting (according to people with much more understanding of plant pathogens than myself) is the irregular orientation of the dividing cells. This means nothing if you have never seen the inside of a burl:

Wild Cherry Burl Bowl

This is exquisite. The coloring. The pattern. The unique character. Two burls are never the same. Like snowflakes. Now you see the draw for wood turners? It doesn’t need to be turned into anything more than a simply shaped bowl and it looks amazing. To see something so simple and even ugly from the outside and watch a beautiful pattern unfold as the wood is gently carved away…it’s a therapy.

Don’t go cutting burls off trees though, unless the tree is already down. First, it can open the tree up to disease and decay–it is not the same as cutting off a branch. Tree branches grow differently than burls, and with them comes a kind of protection which makes branch trimming okay. Depending on the vigor of the tree, cutting off a burl could be a death sentence. Poor tree. Second, if you want to use the burl for wood turning it is best to cut at least 6″ of trunk above and below the burl. This will help keep the burl from drying out too quickly and can even add more character as colors change while it dries.

Large oak-apple gall on oak leaf caused by a cynipid wasp

Gall or tumor are other words to describe the abnormal growths. Many plant galls are created by insects or mites. These are the little ‘bumps’ or round growths on the undersides of leaves and plant stems. Gall and burl can be used interchangeably, but gall is usually used to describe the insect induced growths on non-bark material (leaves and green stems). I don’t really care for tumor because it implies negativity. These growths don’t really harm the tree or plant. Galls are little habitats for the baby insects (larvae) that live inside them; burls are highly sought after, unique wood pieces. Whatever you want to call them (maybe you have a fun, made-up name too), don’t be alarmed if you find these in different shapes and sizes on the trees and plants in your yard.

What About the Fish?

The snowbirds are now comfortably settled in their warm southern homes, and the migratory birds have set up their new homes, too. Temperatures are dropping below the zero mark as we hunker down and bundle up. You may wonder what has become of the outdoor animals that stay here in the frigid north…just before you take a big sip of whipped cream-covered hot cocoa. Mammals put on a thicker coat for the cold winter months and some of their fur even changes color for predator protection–the snowshoe hare and two species of weasel can be found in our region; the arctic fox is probably the most well known but not found in Michigan. Other mammals also “settle down for a long winters nap,” conserving energy and avoiding the need to look for food in four feet of snow.

So, without a fire place, flannel jammies, and a down-filled comforter what is a fish to do? Did you forget about the underwater creatures that not only have no way of leaving, but their homes become covered in inches-thick ice? Do they hibernate…do they lay eggs and die, like insects…large, old fish wouldn’t be possible then, so they must have a special way of making it through.

Even with a thick sheet of ice on top, water temperatures don’t drop below freezing and the warmest water is now at the bottom of a lake. Living in an environment that generally stays around 40 degrees doesn’t sound great, but we are weak from technological advancements and our warmblooded-ness. The fish species living in Northern Michigan waters are tough and adept to the temperatures, decreasing oxygen, and lack of food. It just sounds worse and worse, I know. As the ice thickens (blocking out more sunlight) throughout the winter, the amount of oxygen in the water decreases. Now, fish are poikilotherms, aka coldblooded and can modify their metabolism to the environment–meaning in the winter it can take almost a week for their food to digest. This would be beneficial for us as we eat our heavier “comfort” foods in the winter months. The slower they move, the more energy they conserve, the less they need to eat, and less oxygen is required.

Who could live like this?

  • Lake trout, whitefish, and brown trout. These fish remain fairly active in the winter months as they are coldwater fish at heart–they are even able to expand their horizons and venture into waters that may have been too warm for them during the summer months.
  • Walleye, Northern Pike, and panfish (such as bluegill). These adapt well to cooler temperatures, the pike even adapts to a diet change. Panfish are not their favorite summer dish, plus the vegetation hides them well, but in the winter a fish can’t be picky and with fewer places to hide, the panfish become targets.
  • Bass and muskie. These become more sluggish in the winter and move around very little.
  • Carp and catfish. These are the near-hibernators. Some burrow in the sand, others become dormant, and some slow their respiration, barely move, and rarely eat.

Maybe you are an avid angler and this is old news. Maybe you will impress your friends with your new knowledge this weekend at a New Year’s Eve party with a little which-winter-fish-are-you? game. Laugh all you want, but as fish symbolize transformation, abundance, wisdom, happiness, and unity (in several different cultures) they are the perfect topic to ring in a new year. Cheers.