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.

 

 

O Tannenbaum

For many Americans, the excitement of their Christmas tree is probably old news since so many trees are put up during Thanksgiving weekend. This is not the case for everyone, so on this Friday before Christmas we celebrate the centuries old tradition of the Tannenbaum.

‘Tannenbaum’ is German for fir tree. The German tradition is thought to have begun around the time of Martin Luther or just after–in the mid-1500s. The use of evergreen boughs is an even older tradition as they are connected to certain religions and symbolize everlasting life. Somewhere along the way, boughs became a whole tree with candles. O Tannenbaum, the most well known version of the song, was written in 1824–many versions exist, of course, and the lyrics are older than the tune we know today. German Christmas trees still traditionally have real wax candles (other countries have transitioned to electric candles and regular ol’ string lights), this illumination can have different meanings, but my favorite is the idea that the candles are a guiding light through the darkest days of the year. Of course, real wax candles on a live, fire-starter of a tree should be used with caution–especially if it’s been in the house since November.

Christmas Market in Berlin, Germany

For Americans, then, the tradition of a Christmas tree began to spread once Germans emigrated to the country, and, as we are a melting pot of ideas, traditions vary between regions and families depending upon their backgrounds. Now, Christmas tree farming is an industry making more than a billion dollars each year. Every state in the country produces Christmas trees, but Michigan is one of the top three states growing and supplying trees. Missaukee County’s own Dutchman Tree Farm is one of the top Christmas tree producers in the eastern part of the country and part of the MAEAP program through the Conservation District! While we are on the subject, here are a few more connections Christmas trees have with the Conservation District:

  • Real Trees are a renewable, recyclable resource whereas artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics and possible metal toxins such as lead. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to conifers and don’t really have a choice.
  • Artificial trees cannot be recycled once they out live their “freshness;” many communities offer real tree recycling after Christmas…or you could have a New Year’s bonfire which would be a little like the Yule Log tradition.
  • You can grow your own Christmas tree! Two kinds of fir trees (the real Tannenbaum) and one type of spruce (not Tannen, but Fichten) are offered through our tree sale. It takes an average of 7 years for a Christmas tree to grow to 6-7 feet, so it won’t be ready next year.
  • And of course, trees are always needed for clean air and water, and beneficial to many types of wildlife.

Still not sure about having a real tree? This year, December was declared Michigan Christmas Tree Month, in our area it’s a local commodity (80% of artificial trees are manufactured in China), and you can usually find a place to cut them yourself and make a real family memory just like the Griswolds.

Check out this video about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

 

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.

11.15.17

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?