Ick! A Tick!

Deer Tick or Black-legged Tick

Warmer weather brings a plethora of migrating birds to our backyards, mammals roaming about with their young, butterflies flitting around the early spring blooms, and ticks. It’s exciting to get back outside and enjoy the warm sunshine, but we also have to contend with the unwanted creatures which includes ticks. There are over 20 known species of ticks in Michigan, the most common (at about 75%) being the American Dog tick which is not the carrier of Lyme disease. Unfortunately this species can still carry disease–Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia. The Deer tick, also known as Black-legged tick, is the species known for carrying Lyme disease (left). The five most common ticks in Michigan all can be carriers of different diseases, but all can be treated. Does this mean your summer is busted? Definitely not–just remember to check for ticks after being in the woods or tall grasses, wear bug spray approved for repelling ticks (including my favorite oil of lemon eucalyptus), and tuck in your shirt and your pants legs into your socks. The last one is an emerging fashion trend which will mostly likely make its debut in Paris next summer…

One of the lesser known champions of tick defense: opossums. First–Opossum is a marsupial (still mammals, but generally have pouches for their young and differ in their reproductive traits) found in the Western Hemisphere. Possum is also a marsupial, but they are quite different and occur on the island of Australia where there are 27 species including this striped possum:

The American opossum is…not as cute, but looks are trivial when you are an animal. Opossums really do get a bad rap because they have a naked tail, pointy face, and that shifty type of mannerism. They also hiss and drool when they are threatened (according to researchers) possibly being mistaken as rabid. Opossums are actually resistant to rabies. So why are they our tick defenders? Opossums are fastidious groomers, like cats. According to a recent study, opossums eat over 90% of the ticks they pick up while they waddle around the woods. This means they can eat thousands of ticks in a season!

American Opossum

Sure, they are funny looking, but do they really deserve so much criticism? Backyard chicken farmers are not so fond of opossums because they will target eggs and baby chicks and can also eat an adult chicken. Chickens aside, why not name your night time scavenger and thank him/her for eating the ticks around your house. Thank you Frank, we hope to see you again soon.

Find Your Trail

Take a hike! Saturday June 2 is National Trails Day.

Outdoor recreation is as important for our well being as it is for our economy. It seems surprising that free hiking trails can help generate more than 10 billion in annual revenue, and that’s just for the National forests and grasslands. Nearly half of the country’s population participates in outdoor recreation from winter sports to summer sun. This creates a thriving industry that is also growing more each year.

While the western states are more known for outdoor recreation since the majority of national public lands (forest, park, and the like) are west of the plains–Michigan is a special place for recreation. Having four distinct seasons really helps. A few statistics from Pure Michigan (which you may have heard recently): four Great Lakes, 11,000 inland lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, 20.3 million acres of forests, 4 national parks, 103 state parks and recreation areas, one of the world’s top freshwater fisheries, 1,300 miles of designated mountain bike and bicycle trails, 6,500 miles of snowmobile trails, the second highest number of ski areas in the nation, more than 600 campgrounds and an international dark sky park. You are probably beginning to see why “outdoor recreation” is a multi-billion dollar industry as many of these activities call for permits and high-end equipment.

For those of us that prefer to stay close to home, this vast list of opportunities is not only good news, but probably one of the reasons you continue to live in this beautiful state. If hiking hasn’t been one of your outdoor activities take National Trails Day as a reason to get out and explore on foot. Maps are easily accessible through different websites, apps, or stop at a DNR or National Forest station to get one of those old-fashion, hard-to-fold-up-once-opened large pieces of paper with contour lines, roads…Contrary to some belief, you don’t need a reason or a goal when you go for a hike. You can hike just to hike, to absorb the fresh air and listen to the leaves rustle in the wind and the birds call and enjoy the spring flowers. Just don’t forget to pack a snack. Happy Trails.

Maps and Trail Data

The North Country Trail is a National Scenic Trail stretching from New York to North Dakota, 4,600 miles. 

Replenish

Image result for spring meltThe temperature fluctuation has been quite…interesting this year. While we have had a similar amount of snowfall and overall precipitation during the first two months of the year as compared to last year, we have definitely seen more snow this April. Last year the total amount of snowfall for April was 0.2 inches. This data was gathered at the MSU AgBio Research Station and can be found at NOAA. Sure we are all tired of the snow, but for our lakes and rivers the way we receive precipitation doesn’t matter quite so much.

 

Spring snowmelt is an especially important ecological event in the northern climates. The rush of water being added to rivers revives the stream flow, moves animals and minerals through the system; overall awakening rivers and streams from the low and slow water movement of winter. The graph below depicts information gathered from a USGS (Geological Survey are those last two letters) station–in Vogel Center! In a secret location on the Clam River there is a station gathering river data…it’s not actually secret. Coincidentally, we use this landmark as one of our stream monitoring locations. Why would we monitor in a location where there is a station gathering data with much more sophisticated equipment? Great question, because the info we gather is actually aquatic animals and their relation to water quality, not this kind of water data. Back to the graph–

 

Notice the time between February 17 and March 3–the time the weather warmed up and the snow melted. The graph shows a drastic increase in the amount of “discharge” defined by USGS as: the volume of water that passes a given location within a given period of time.  I must say, the USGS site really helps the layman make sense of the data they present on their site. The information available to explore depends on the chosen site; data has been gathered for Clam River, Vogel Center since 1989. For the real environmental nerd, 4th grade science project, or numerous other people and projects, there is so much information to wade through and compare. This small snapshot of the February snowmelt is just to show what will be happening (hopefully this weekend) again. The surprise snow storm wasn’t ideal for us, but it will still benefit our rivers, lakes, and streams. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than to listen to the sweet sound of snow melting and rivers flowing?

Who’s Peeping?

The end of March, first of April is an exciting time outside. Most movies exaggerate real life, but this time of year really is like that scene from Bambi. Happy, singing, smiling. Even the plants seem to be smiling.

While the Black Bear is emerging from her forest den, hopefully with adorable cubs, the Northern Spring Peeper is lighting up the wetlands and lake edges. These tiny frogs are a sure sign the cold weather has broke. Spring peepers are true hibernators. They have this amazing feature allowing them to survive freezing temperatures through the winter months. Glycerol is their “anti-freeze” which is produced in their tissues and coats their cells, thus protecting them from freezing. Also, peepers burrow in mud or under leaves to protect them from the elements and keep their skin looking good. When temperatures warm to above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the frogs thaw and return to the land of those that begrudgingly made it through winter without sleeping the whole time. Around here, the time for emergence is early spring. In the southern reaches of their range (northern Georgia), they emerge as early as January.

Ode to the Spring Peeper Frog | The Sound of Spring

Similar to the Spring Song, peepers begin singing their happy song almost as soon as they thaw out. Only male spring peepers sing, or call since it seems birds have the monopoly on “sing,” and they do so to find a mate. The spring peeper call is a high-pitched, short note. They call from about April until the end of June. When many call together it is said they “may be mistaken for the sound of sleigh bells”…until you remember sleighs need at least foot of snow and this isn’t the 1800s. Growing up in this area the sound of spring peepers is quite unmistakable, maybe surprising when first heard in early spring, but a recognizable and welcome evening serenade.

I have never actually seen a spring peeper. I don’t have high hopes of ever seeing one either. First, they are only about 1 inch in length. Second, their coloring is a camouflage matching the dead leaves, bark, and muddy ground where they hang out. Third, they are nocturnal: sleep during the day, up all night, the opposite of my schedule. Your best bet to seeing them is now, though, while they are calling and congregating around ponds–until the end of June. Summer is the time when they’ve already mated, laid eggs, and go back to being solitary creatures.

Female spring peepers lay 700 to 1300 eggs in ponds or vernal pools (large puddles that show up every spring but dry up in the summer). Eggs are usually in clumps and attached to vegetation in the pond. Tad pols will hatch after about two weeks and become adults in anywhere between 45 and 90 days.  These adults will sing for their mates next spring.

One more note–spring peepers, scientific name Pseudacris crucifer, often have a dark X across their back and are sometimes called “the cross-bearer.” Nature is a funny thing. Happy Easter.

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

GBBC

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?