Home is Where the Nest is

Now, with more than a couple inches of snow on the ground, the writing about animals tracks seems more fitting. Alas, the weather is hard to predict. Instead we will turn to an above ground scavenger hunt.

Once all of the leaves fall from the hardwoods, we can peek into the activity of the tree as if opening the door to the dream house we dive by everyday and finally being able to walk inside. Maybe absent leaves from a tree does not reveal something so extravagant, but hopefully you get my meaning.

Large trees with many branches can hold several nests we often cannot see until the leaves are gone. The little homes tell us a bit about the area, and maybe you already had a good idea of who lived there. However, it is still fun (at least for me) to see the different forms that these nests take. Of course, not all bird nests are created the same–orioles build nests that droop below the branches and look as though they may fall at any time; hummingbirds build very tiny, cupped nests tucked into a shrub. Shape isn’t the only defining characteristic. Different species uses different materials to build their nests. Our state bird, the American Robin, builds it’s nest using grass and twigs held together with a thick layer of mud, lined with fine dry grass. Chickadees often use moss or animal fur while building their nest which they “excavate” in a tree cavity. Even within species, the nest materials can vary depending on the area the live. If a Chickadee cannot find moss or animal fur, maybe they’ll use that bit of yarn my mother puts out for them instead.

Have you ever seen a mess of leaves in the crook of a tree? They didn’t fall there, believe it or not that is a “built” home. I say “built” because they usually look haphazard and falling apart. Squirrels build these leaf nests, usually, high in a large tree. They aren’t the only mammal that builds nests or creates homes in trees. Raccoons, skunks, and porcupines will use natural cavities in a tree and build their nest within. The nest part is not generally something that can be seen, but the cavities may be more easily seen when the leaves are gone.

As you stroll through Northern Michigan’s beautiful woods this winter, marveling at the way snow hangs upon the evergreens and blankets the stout branches of the hardwoods, those little tree homes may add a new element to your outdoor adventures.

The Tufted Titmouses use damp leaves, moss and grasses, and bark strips to build cup-shaped nests; they line this cup with soft materials such as hair, fur, wool, and cotton, sometimes plucking hairs directly from living mammals. These adorable, flitting birds live in Northern Michigan year round.

Find more information about nests and birds at NestWatch.

Who Goes There?

Many of us have mixed feelings about snow–often our ‘like’ comes with a qualifier–I like snow as long as I don’t have to drive in it; as long as it doesn’t thaw and then freeze and create a hard-pack; as long as the flakes are big, fluffy, and sparkle in the morning sun…etc. This struggle between like and dislike can be especially strong when the calendar still says ‘Fall.’ 

I will now attempt to give you a.) one more reason to like snow, and b.) one more reason to get outside when the hot cocoa, knitting, and movies are calling you couch-potato-it all day.

The mysterious residents of your backwoods, hiking trail, or your front yard can be revealed through the magic of fresh snow. How? Animal tracks. The softness of snow seems to make for one of the better imprint mediums. Sand can be too fluid, mud may be too soft, but snow is soft and compacts but light enough to show the smallest details (nails, tail…). If you search for animal tracks, many of the photos you will find are tracks in snow–not feet of snow, usually a couple inches.

The photo above is an imprint of ruffed grouse wings at take off. Many birds fly from branch to branch, they may land on the ground near your bird feeder, but how often do you find their wing “tracks?” This beautiful bird track may be one of the easier to identify. There are some animals that have similar tracks, though. The coyote, fox, and domestic dog are all related–Family Canidae–and their tracks look quite similar. Track size and the arrangement of the pads will help you identify which animal has been stalking your woods…probably not your dog. Between dog (and family members) and cat tracks–generally cats do not leave nail marks with their tracks since their claws are usually retracted (at least when they are walking).

From a distance, rabbit and squirrel tracks can look similar as the pattern they make is about the same size. Squirrel tracks will  show the long skinny toes as opposed to the paw-like track of rabbits. One article describes squirrel tracks as “blocky” whereas the rabbit’s pattern forms a “tall, thin rectangle,” delicate and adorable, naturally.

Holidays are a wonderful family, food, drink, and travel filled time which can quickly become overwhelming and sometimes stressful. A peaceful walk in the woods may be just what you need to calm your mind and reinvigorate your spirit as you discover the secret lives of your woodland neighbors. Happy Thanksgiving.

The Sick and the Restricted

By this time, you either know someone who has been out deer stalking or have been out yourself. A common complaint among hunters is regarding the number of restrictions. So many rules! Why all the regulations? Believe it or not there is reasoning and logic behind this messy and confusing looking chart:

The Michigan landscape and climate varies a great deal. Areas with a higher number of farm land seem to have an increased number of deer which can also lead to an increase in diseases transmitted between those deer. Please do not misunderstand that statement–farms are not to blame for disease (maybe you weren’t thinking that, but I thought it best to clarify). More food sources combined with milder winter temperatures can increase population. Without harsh winters, weaker animals survive more easily and they intermingle with the rest of the population and can potentially pass on their illness (or breed with others to create additional weaklings).

These DMUs–or Deer Management Units–seem confusing, but they take into account several factors to improve the management of game populations. You will notice that areas of high disease have fewer size regulations to try and eliminate those diseases. The Upper Peninsula has experienced harsh (meaning negative degree temperatures and abundant snow) winters the past couple years or more–the restrictions here are more stringent due to mother nature taking a chunk out of the population. The red asterisk areas are mainly islands which have their own unique challenges–the primary one being that they are water locked.

If you want to continue to hold a grudge against the DNR I won’t try to sway you too much. However, the map and restriction key will hopefully help as you choose a hunting location. Maybe while you are sitting up in a tree or blind being as still and quiet as you can without falling asleep you can ponder the connections between environment, management restrictions/decisions, and those big eyes staring you down.


Gear up to celebrate next week’s holiday!

I’m not talking about the annual kick-off of stalking white-tailed deer with rifles. While this is a celebrated holiday (generally lasting more than one day) in Northern Michigan, I am actually talking about a national  holiday: America Recycles Day!

Recycling adds another facet to Environmental Awareness Month. The national recycling rate has increased in recent decades, and is currently at about 34%. This seems like a fairly small number…34% on an exam usually means you failed–miserably, but this is not the case for recycling. There are many items that are difficult to recycle; rural areas often have fewer resources for recycling. These challenges can keep the recycling rate low. As the industry grows, changes, and becomes more accessible the rate should grow. You too can help that rate grow by doing all that you can and are able, right now. Several resources are available, online, to help you find where to recycle those non-traditional items or items that your local center may not take. At the Missaukee Recycling Center, glass is currently one of those items not accepted. However, some surrounding towns/counties do accept glass. Call or visit the Recycling page (above) for more information–231.839.7193.

Celebrate America Recycles Day with a free gift from your friendly neighborhood environmental organization! Join the wonderful Missaukee Conservation District Recycling Team at the Missaukee Recycling Center, 6420 W. Sanborn Road, Lake City, this Wednesday, November 15, 2017. Supply is limited, so come early–center opens at 9 a.m.!

Not convinced recycling is beneficial? Here are a few statistics from the EPA:

  • Recycling one ton of office paper can save the energy equivalent of consuming 322 gallons of gasoline.
  • Recycling just one ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 152 million Btu, the equivalent of 1,024 gallons of gasoline or 21 barrels of oil consumed.
  • Plastic bottles are the most recycled plastic product in the United States as of 2014, according to the most recent EPA report. Recycling just 10 plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 25 hours.

This November 15, come up with your own creative ideas to improve recycling in your household or community, and visit Becky Bode at the recycling center–Bambi will thank you.


Dragons and Damsels






These beauties are going to kick-off Environmental Awareness Month!

This week the conservation district wrapped up it’s Volunteer Stream Monitoring Fall 2017 project. If you missed past posts and/or newspaper articles, Volunteer Stream Monitoring is a project designed and overseen by MiCorps (or Michigan Clean Water Corps)–a network of volunteer water quality monitoring programs. Stream monitoring involves collecting organisms and identifying those organisms. These macroinvertebrates living in our rivers and streams (and lakes too) can provide insight to a water-body’s health. AKA–raising awareness about our surrounding environments

At the beginning of October, eight sites, located on various rivers and streams, were sampled. Those preserved samples were then identified…over the course of a few days. They are called macroinvertebrates which means you are supposed to be able to see them with the naked eye, however, that is kind of a lie. Some are very tiny and a microscope is definitely necessary. Pictured above are a few larger creatures found in the Clam River: (left to right) damselfly nymph, armored mayfly nymph, dragonfly nymph. Those are all insects you have probably heard of before and know them better as winged adults. There are many insect larva (or active, immature life stage) and nymphs that live in the water before emerging as terrestrial adults. The three pictured are nymphs which means their metamorphosis is incomplete–they never become pupa or make a chrysalis (inactive, immature life stage).

I know, it can be a bit much. What this all boils down to is these insects are either very sensitive to water pollution, mildly sensitive, or very tolerant. Thus, giving those of us removing them from their home and then poking and prodding at them, a basic idea of the water quality where they were collected. Chemical water tests, soil samples, plant samples…these can tell us more, but they are much more time consuming, expensive, and may not be easily done by volunteers. Our volunteers make this project possible, and the great thing about the project is that it takes fairly little training to get a person without macroinvertebate background to participate.

Results for Fall 2017 monitoring: 1 “Excellent”, 5 “Good”, and 2 “Fair” water quality streams. The MiCorps scoring system categorizes streams as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor. Full results will be published on our Stream Monitoring webpage, coming this winter.

Our next stream monitoring collection and ID events will be held May 2018. Contact Kate at 231.839.7193 or kate.nietling@macd.org to receive updates and/or be added to the Stream Team list!

Fly Me to the Moon

Time to migrate. Actually, birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and fish migrate at various times throughout the year. For us northerners though, now seems the best time to migrate and birds are the most visible travelers.

Birds: waterfowl and song birds migrate to areas with more abundant resources. As most Michigan lakes are frozen in the winter, they provide zero food for waterfowl that enjoy eating those little insects or plants living in the water. The distance of migration varies with different species, and some birds stay all year round (my favorite is the bright, red cardinal).

 The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird in the world. These black-capped, red-billed birds can fly more than 49,700 miles in a year, making a round trip between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where they spend their winters. The lucky bird gets to see two summers a year! And over its lifespan of more than 30 years, the flights can add up to the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.

Monarch Butterflies overwinter in fir tree forests of Mexico–they are believed to be souls of loved ones lost, returning. Their arrival happens around Dia de los Muertos.

Insects: there are actually hundreds of species of insects that migrate for different reasons. From beetle to locusts to the one we’ve talked about most this year–the Monarch Butterfly, insects migrate a.) to breed (which ends up being a one-way journey), b.) from a breeding area to a feeding area and c.) from a breeding area to a hibernation place (again, Michigan is literally freezing in the winter months). Other insects count on the eggs they lay in the fall to survive the winter and produce a new generation the following spring.

Snow Birds: also known as grandparents or senior citizens. These creatures migrate south for the winter much like the waterfowl and song birds. This phenomenon is less studied than other mammal migrations. So many questions have yet to be answered–what drives this generation to congregate in three common regions, what accounts for the other members of the generation not migrating…such a mystery!

As you are out this fall observing the bird migrations (possibly in a duck hunting boat), or around the country enjoying mammal or insect migrations, consider your own migratory patterns and fall/winter rituals–what do they say about you, your generation, and will future generations study them to unravel hidden mysteries?

What in the Mantis World?!

If I haven’t already told you, I’m a bug nerd. It’s one of those things I can’t explain. Hopefully you at least find them mildly interesting and maybe someday you will be converted into a full nerd.

This beauty was discovered at our office a couple weeks ago. Notice the enlarged abdomen–this is a pregnant female. Praying mantis females lay 100-400 eggs in the fall. Nymphs (baby insects) will emerge in the spring, grow all summer, mate in the fall, and then die after laying eggs. The cycle starts over. Now, praying mantis may be most well known for their mating…ritual, I suppose it could be called. Female mantises often eat their mate after (or sometimes during) mating. Why would she do such a thing? She is about to produce over 100 eggs. Maybe having a source of protein so easily caught is just too hard to pass up, even if it is her mate. Male mantises don’t pass on this information (through genes) to their off-spring though. So they continue to fall into the same trap year after year. No matter, males that survive mating die very soon after anyway.

Praying not Preying

Even as a bug nerd, I sometimes forget which one is it. These insects are veracious predators:

  • they have two compound eyes and three simple eyes (between the compound eyes)
  • their head can rotate 180 degrees
  • they are green which is an excellent camouflage when you live outdoors among green plants
  • their reflexes are so fast that they are difficult for humans to see
  • those long front legs are also lined with sharp spikes

So why praying mantis and not preying mantis? First, insects were named way back in the day, when religion was a state institution. The front legs fold up and even though insects don’t have hands, per say, the legs appear bent and held as one would do so in prayer. Hence Praying Mantis. It seems funny to think of this lethal (and cannibalistic) insect to be praying when it’s prey are the ones who should be doing so instead.

Keep an eye on egg sacks in the spring for emerging youngsters. These insects are also a common “pet.” A good starter pet since they’ll only live 6-12 months, but loads of fun to watch–just keep feeding them crickets and grasshoppers. Scout out an egg case this fall and make the transition to full bug nerd!


Get Batty

Bats have had it rough. From being associated with the spooky story of Dracula (1897, Stoker) to being consistently characterized as blood suckers, the stigmas surrounding the species have been tough for them to shake. I’m not sure if Batman was trying to help make a case for bats or feed the stigma…that one is a little fuzzy. Those are just pop culture misnomers, there are plenty of real ways they’ve been shunned from the cuddly wildlife scenes. Rabies, living in our houses, dirty, get tangled in your hair, pests, attacking people.

  1. Now, less than 1% of bats have rabies, and other animals carry rabies as well–it was rabid wolf that bit Old Yeller, but wolves don’t need to take any more heat either. Be smart about wildlife you come in contact with, we don’t call it wild for no reason.
  2. Bats may seek shelter, especially in high population areas, inside a house–generally an old, wood-sided house and in areas where there are few trees for them to roost.
  3. It’s true, wild (and domestic) animals are dirty…just like we would be if no one had invented soap, shampoo, showering, etc.
  4. Getting tangled in hair sounds like a myth that was developed by someone who had a phobia associated with both bats and getting things caught in their hair. Bats are animals that fly at night, in the dark, they will no sooner fly into you (or your hair) than they’ll fly into a tree.
  5. Pest is a difficult word. You can use it for anything that bothers you. My sister was a pest when we were growing up…but everything has a purpose and labeling it a pest has a negative effect and leads many to disregard all of the qualities that give something it’s purpose.
  6. Attack? They’ll only attack you if you are a juicy insect, also see #4. A fish swam into my foot once, should I say that fish attack people?

Bats are amazing creatures–they are the only mammal capable of true flight. As a mammal, they have similarities to humans: long life span, few offspring, and their wings are actually modified hands. The last one there is pretty cool–when you look up close at the skeleton of a bat, the “arm” bones are all very short and the phalanges (bones of the fingers and hand) are elongated and modified. So, from #5, what is the purpose of a bat? Many are pollinators which is an incredibly important purpose, especially for us food mongers. It would be an enormous amount of work if we had to pollinate all our own food; luckily we have birds, butterflies, bees, and these lovely mammals to do the work for us. They are also excellent insect controls. The bat species in Michigan are all insectivores (something that eats insects, I’m sure you guessed). They can eat an incredible amount of mosquitoes, which I know are no one’s favorite neighbor. They disperse seeds. In areas of the world where bats eat fruit (generally tropical forests) they play a very important role in dispersing seeds to restore logged forest lands. So, will you help them breakthrough the negativity and into the light of cuddly wildlife that we revere and protect?

Visit Bat Conservation International to learn more!

Bat educational programs are available from our Conservation Educator, Kelly Hansen. Visit our Education page to learn more or call for details, 231.839.7193.

Fire in the Sky

Campfires are an every season occurrence for some…enthusiasts. A cool fall evening, a glowing winter night, or a warm summer evening, all sound excellent to me! Fire culture is probably different depending on geographical area and upbringing and there is also this mystical feeling that comes with fire–people seem to think it’s easily controlled. However, there are many factors that can change a well controlled fire in a matter of seconds. This brings me to another popular fire activity–burning yard debris.

What do you do with those piles of fallen leaves and broken branches? Well, fire is fun, but it’s also dangerous. While fires rage out west all summer long from hot, dry conditions (and human mischief and/or mistake), the fire season in the Northeast is actually during the spring and fall months when the most leaves are on the ground. Those are also the months when homeowners generally burn yard waste. Burning a little pile of leaves seems so harmless but, did you know that an ember can travel up to a mile (or more) depending on conditions. Meaning: there is a chance for your small yard pile to start a wildfire. These uncontrolled fires can cost hundreds of thousand or millions of dollars…a steep price tag for burning your yard debris.

I will also say here, that there are two kinds of “forest” fires: wild and prescribed (or controlled). ‘Wild’ are those that were started by accident (campfires left unattended…fireworks, etc), by lightning strikes, or intentionally but without a plan (aka arson). ‘Prescribed’ are those designed by fire experts and carried out by trained firefighters. They have a plan, a contingency plan, multiple resources, and are designed to be low intensity in order to replenish understory growth, encourage new tree sprouts, and benefit wildlife.  

So what are the options for the humble landowner? Well, today is a good day to burn because it rained in the last 24 hours and the temperature isn’t high enough to dry everything out quickly. You should make sure, before doing any burning, the city/township/county ordinance allows burning in your area–are there permits required, is it prohibited during certain months, does Smokey say “fire danger High today”? Metal barrels are useful for containment burning. Fire pits that are dug out and have stone or brick around the edge are also useful. Burning in an open area without any type of containment is tricky. Walking away from an uncontained burn pile is not a good idea. Have a shovel or hard-tinned rake ready and maintain the fire while it’s burning, dig a 1-2 foot barrier around the burn area (fire cannot travel through non-vegetated soil) and be sure all the embers are out before walking away–just like Smokey says.

Call 1.866.922.2876 or visit www.michigan.org/burnpermit for more information.

Bigfoot’s Been Doing it for Years!

Have you been for a walk in the woods recently? I sure hope so, or maybe you’ve floated down the river…camped…gone out berry picking. There is so much to explore and do in the woods/nature this time of year, and really all times of year. Northern Michigan forests are full of beauty, wonder, and surprises during all seasons! One of those surprises though may be the amount of trash along trails and streams. Less beauty and more wonder there (as in “that’s a real thinker”).

The past week+ has been prime for outdoor sports as we enjoy an extension of summer weather (odd, just two weeks ago I was ready to embrace the cool weather, pre-fall…funny how that works) and I was lucky enough to do a little kayaking recently. I was not so lucky to find an abundance of trash. **insert super-duper sad face here** As a kid who grew up not in the city, but not immersed in outdoor recreation, I was naive enough to always believe that nature was just that–natural, nothing added. Also, we were taught that you put things back the way you found them or better. It is surprising, then, to find trash in the woods, because you know the trees didn’t put it there…so someone(s) has forgotten their golden rules. Respect, treating others as you wish to be treated, etc. I doubt the trees, wildlife, fish, lichens (because they are a separate group too) and others appreciate garbage left in their homes. Maybe golden rules are “old-fashioned” now…I really don’t see why they would be though. It seems common courtesy to follow simple guidelines: I like this stream/trail/camping spot therefore I will take care of it so that when I return it is as magical as the first time I came here. Being stewards of our natural resources should never go out of style and can never be replaced by technology–it’s up to you and me and everyone else to be chivalrous to Mother Nature.

Leave No Trace is an outdoor ethics organization with easy to remember guidelines about how and why we return our fun weekend spot to the state it was before we arrived. They have also enlisted Bigfoot as their mascot…if they could ever find him! That is really the point–who doesn’t want to be as cool and elusive as Bigfoot? I guess it’s not the whole point, but it could be a fun game with your kids: who can be the least traceable on your camping trip, your hike, your float? Maybe Bigfoot is too Northwestern and you are more familiar with Dogman…the reported, yet elusive “bigfoot” of the northwestern quadrant of Michigan. Never heard of or seen Dogman? Perhaps more of these creatures that leave no trace of themselves exist…and maybe you can join their legendary ranks. Will you accept the challenge?