Sunday, May 20, 2018

2018 Isabella County Environmental Education Day

Friday was our 9th annual Environmental Education Day.  This event takes months of planning and requires the effort of dozens of people to be a success.  Six months prior to the date I start contacting a variety of government agencies and environmental organizations to participate.  My goal is to have around twenty different educational stations (including the Isabella Conservation District) set up for the students that attend.  This year the following groups participated:

Why do we need so many different activities? 

It's because of the number of students that attend.  We invite every third grade classroom in Isabella County to attend the Environmental Education Day.  This year 28 different classes were able to attend.  That meant that we had almost 600 students in attendance this year!  Luckily, the students don't all come at once.  Half of the students come for a morning session and the other half come for the afternoon - 300 students at one time is still whole lot of kids!  We need so many different activities to make sure the students have something to do the entire time they are at the event.

Here are a few scenes from Environmental Education Day.

Creating a "tree cookie" necklace with Isabella County Parks

Learning about Ojibwe culture with the Ziibiwing Center

Chippewa Watershed Conservancy Executive Director Jon Breithaupt talks preserves with students and chaperones

Everyone wanted photos!

Learning about the life span of materials from the CMU Museum staff

Reptiles always amaze

Every kid received a backpack from us (and elk antlers from the DNR)

Crafting a radish seed necklace with MSU Extension

Celebrating 100 year of elk in Michigan with the DNR

Learning about Anishinaabe culture from the Elijah Elk Cultural Center

Rocks and minerals at the Isabella Conservation District table - such a tactile experience!

Ask me about bees, please!

Searching for aquatic life

Saginaw Chippewa Environmental Team teaching about water quality

Just a few of the students - learning about archaeology from Alma College

Kids love to learn about and from Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers

Bicycle-powered smoothies with GreenTree Grocery

Pheasant Forever had pheasant chicks on site - a huge hit with the students!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Adaptations - Mobbing

Have you ever observed small birds harassing or diving after a much larger bird?

Then you have witnessed a behavioral adaptation known as mobbing.  Adaptations are physical traits or behaviors that helps an organism survive in its habitat.  Mobbing is a behavior that birds use to chase away predators.  When mobbing small birds will often gang up on their target.  The idea is that although a predator might be able to catch a single small bird diving after it, the predator will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and leave to avoid further harassment. 

Why are small birds acting this way?  The answer depends.  Sometimes small birds become more aggressive (and territorial) during mating season and they will chase away any bird that flies over their territory.  Birds also use mobbing to protect themselves and their young from predators.  When young birds are still in the nest adult birds will often fly after any large bird that strays "too close" to the nest.  This "too close" distance is arbitrary and a bird may chase a predator hundreds of yards if feeling particularly feisty.  Mammals (including people) are also lumped into this danger category - walk too close to a Red-winged Blackbird nest and you are likely to be mobbed.

Small  birds don't discriminate.  Besides people, mobbing targets include hawks, eagles, owls, herons, and crows.  Crows themselves will often mob hawks and owls.  Did you ever wonder why owls are camouflaged?  You would be too if you had to avoid being mobbed all day when you just want to sleep!

The large poplar trees outside our office are the frequent perch of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis).  I am often alerted to the presence of the hawks by the sounds of mobbing birds.  Last week it was a pair of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata). 

The jays took turns diving on the hawk.  I don't think they ever made contact, but the hawk kept having to duck to avoid the jays.

After several minutes, the hawk had enough and flew away pursued by the jays.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ducks in Trees?

Ducks in trees?

A pair of Wood Ducks at Audubon Woods Preserve

Absolutely!  Several species of Michigan ducks can commonly be found in trees - not only do they perch in trees, but they also nest in cavities in trees!. 

Cavity-nesting duck species include the Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).  Of these five species, only the final two species are year round residents.  The first three species are migrants and winter visitors to Mid-Michigan, but migrate further north to nest.   

Of the two year-round residents, I have never seen a Hooded Merganser in a tree.  I have seen Wood Ducks in trees many times, including last week at Audubon Woods Preserve.  While waiting for students to arrive I observed a pair of Wood Ducks landing in a nearby tree.  The ducks were aware of me, but didn't startle and fly away immediately. 
Instead, they remained in the tree for several minutes.  Long enough for me to retrieve my camera and photograph them for nearly two minutes.  There were many tree branches in the way, but I still managed to get several clear shots of both the male and female before they startled and flew deeper into the woods.

A Wood Duck drake is much more colorful than the drab colored hen.
The hen's dull colors help camouflage it much better than the bright plumage of the drake.

These two Wood Ducks were probably searching for a nesting site such as an old woodpecker hole.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Green-striped Trilliums

While working with the Shepherd fifth graders at Audubon Woods Preserve earlier this week I noticed dozens of Large-Flowered Trillium blooms.  Most of these were the standard white variety.

But, there were a few flowers with a green stripe down the center of each white petal.

The green stripe is a sign of mycoplasma infection

These flowers have been infected by something called a mycoplasma.  A mycoplasma is a form of bacteria that lacks a cell wall.  This infection will first be noted as a green stripe near the center of each petal.  As the infection spreads in successive years the stripe widens until the whole petal may be green.  This infection can also cause deformed petals or even double blooms (so each flower would have six instead of three petals).  This infection eventually impairs the reproductive ability of the infected plant and prevents successful seed production.

This Trillium bloom is almost entirely green and its leaves also show signs of infection.

A mycoplasma infected Trillium

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Forestry for Fifth Graders (07 & 08 May 2018)

If you have visited the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy's Audubon Woods Preserve in the past week you may have noticed some metal T-posts that weren't there before.

A metal T-post standing alone at Audubon Woods Preserve

Why are these posts at Audubon Woods?  What are they for?

For the past seven years, I have used Audubon Woods as an outdoor science classroom for local elementary students.  The T-posts are meant to be semi-permanent education stations.  In the past, every time I took students to Audubon Woods I would set up temporary stations at somewhat random points in the woods.  There is a lot that can be done by using temporary points, but more can be learned long term if students use the same locations time after time.

With permission, I set about placing posts along a series of transects (lines) throughout the woods.  I set up three transects at regularly spaced intervals in the woods and placed six evenly-spaced posts along each transect.  Now with semi-permanent locations, data that the students collect can be compared over time.

So what kinds of data are the students collecting?

Over the past two day (07 & 08 MAY 2018) I have been working with fifth grade students from Shepherd Elementary.  These classes were able to travel to Audubon Woods because last fall their teachers applied for and received a Wheels To Woods field trip grant

Students are measuring the circumference of trees in their study plot and using that to calculate diameter.

Measuring a tree's circumference

Measuring large trees takes teamwork

Students are also counting trees at their study plot to determine the number of trees in one acre of forest and in the entire forest.  Audubon Woods is 40 acres in size - at 43,560 sq. ft/acre, that means Audubon Woods is 1,742,400 sq. ft!  Counting all of the trees in an area this size would be an impossible task.  Luckily, it is easy to count the number of trees in a much smaller area and then use that number to estimate the total number of trees in the forest.  A circle with a radius of approximately 37 feet will have an area of 1/10 acre.   Remember those T-posts?  Students counted every tree within 37 feet of the post and used multiplied that number by 10 to find the number of trees in one acre and then again by 40 to find the total number of trees in Audubon Woods.

Tape measures are an important forestry tool

Measuring trees to make sure they fit in their plot

Students then calculated the number of leaves on the forest floor by counting the number of leaves in one square foot and then multiplying by 43,560 to get the number of leaves in one acre, and then by 40 to get the total number of leaves on the floor of Audubon Woods.  Imagine if a single square foot holds exactly 100 leaves, this would calculate out to over 172 million leaves in the forest!

Students had a square made from PVC pipe to make their task easier

Counting leaves from a single square foot of forest


Students also calculated the weight of all the leaves in the forest, identified and sketched leaves, and drew a sketch of the forest near their study plot.  Perhaps just as important as the science, this field trip allowed students to get out of the classroom for a few hours.  The months of April and May are testing time in Michigan.  Students spend hours taking state-mandated assessments and even more hours taking tests required by their local school district.  A field trip like this exposes them to sights, sounds, and smells that thy can never experience in the classroom.

Large-flowered Trillium

Trillium surrounded by Mayapple

Spring Beauty flowers


Skunk Cabbage

Wood Frogs were everywhere hidden among the leaves

Another Bloodroot flower

The maples and other trees are just starting to leaf out