Friday, March 29, 2013

What's good for the goose...

A Canada Goose gander

While some Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) remained in Mid-Michigan throughout the winter, others are returning in large numbers or are stopping in the area on the way to their breeding grounds further north. 

The ones that will remain in Mid-Michigan for the breeding season have started breaking up into pairs and dispersing throughout suitable breeding territory.  This pair was foraging this morning in lawns along the Chippewa River in Mt. Pleasant.  The gander (male) is very protective of the goose (female) right now.  She was busy eating.  He was busy trying to chase away anyone that came walking down the path through the park.

Goose (left) and gander (right)
During the next few weeks, these geese and others will build nest sites near water.  Often these nests will be in an elevated location such as on top of a muskrat lodge.  The goose will then lay 1-2 eggs per day over the course of a week (the average nest is 5-6 eggs total) before she begins to incubate the eggs.  She will incubate the eggs for approximately four weeks.  Once the eggs hatch, the fuzzy yellow goslings (young) are able to walk, swim, and feed immediately.  They will rely on their parents for protection until they are able to fly.  They will feed on grasses, seeds, insects, grains, and aquatic vegetation and grow rapidly.  They will stay with their parents throughout their first year.  If the pair of adults breeds early enough they may have a second brood (or more further south) later in the season. 

Adult and partially grown goslings (2005)
There are at least 11 recognized subspecies of Canada Goose.  Their ranges cover most of North America.  They breed across Canada and Alaska, they live year round in the northern half of the United States, and winter in the southern United States and Mexico.  Geese that live further north tend to be larger than the southern subspecies.  A mature Greater Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) can weigh as much as 24 pounds.  Other subspecies are smaller, with some weighing as little as 3 pounds.

A goose (female)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

A little bonus post for today.  I was walking at Mission Creek Woodland Park this morning and scared this Barred Owl (Strix varia) out of a tree.  It flew into an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and stayed there long enough for me to take a few pictures before flying off. 

Question: Which book should I buy? Answer: All of them.

Whenever I do a public program about wildflowers I get asked "What field guide do you use/recommend?"  Sometimes it's hard not to laugh at that question.  I have a couple favorites, but I have a whole stack(s) of books that I use as field/identification guides.  Some of them are used on a regular basis.  Some are just collector's items.

Some of the ones that I use on a regular basis have lots of photographs for identification.  Others are filled with line drawings.  I find both type of books useful.  I like photographs if I am focused mainly on the flowers.  If I am trying to identify the plant by other features such as leaves I find the ones with line illustrations to be better. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Waiting for Spring

This scene is very common in Mid-Michigan this time of year. In this photo from early April 2008, a male Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) guards his patch of marsh and awaits Spring and the return of the female Red-winged Blackbirds.  The males arrive first and compete for the best territories.  When the females arrive, they will seek out a male that controls a suitable territory.  If a male has a suitable territory, often more than one female will choose him as a mate and settle within his territory.  Males with the best territories will have an average of five females (sometimes as many as 15) nesting within that territory.  Because those males with the best territories have the most opportunities to mate and pass on their genes, competition for territory is fierce.  Once a territory has been won it is jealously guarded, with the male attacking other birds, mammals, even people that enter his domain.

Mid-Michigan Habitats - Northern Hardwood-Conifer Swamp

A Northern Hardwood-Conifer Swamp

The Northern Hardwood-Conifer Swamp is a type of wetland forest found in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  It is also found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the northeastern United States and the eastern Canadian provinces.  Mid-Michigan is on the southern edge of the range for this habitat.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

For the Birds

One of the easiest things that you can do to help birds is to put up places for them to nest.  Many bird nest only in abandoned woodpecker holes, knotholes, and other cavities in trees.  Unfortunately for many cavity-nesting birds, appropriate nesting sites are few and far between, and there is great competition for those sites that do exist. 

Most appropriate nest sites are found in dead or dying trees where it easier for woodpeckers to excavate a hole.  If these are in the middle of a woods, they may stand for many years and be used by many different species.  But if they are along a fencerow, on the edge of a woods, or in someone's yard they are not likely to last for more than one or two nesting seasons.  Many people view dead trees, especially one with holes, as ugly or even dangerous.  They don't think about the value of such trees to wildlife.

A trend that has been happening for many years, but that seems to be accelerating here in Mid-Michigan, is the removal of fencerows between fields.  Farmers do this to maximize agricultural production, but unfortunately it removes valuable habitat for many species, including cavity-nesting birds. 

So things might look bleak for cavity nesting birds, but there is one easy step that can be done to help them: build and install artificial nest boxes.  Do it right now before nesting season begins.  The birds will find the boxes and use them. 

There are many available plans that can be built from a single board with simple hand tools.  This plan is one that we have available in our office for people to take. I have found this same plan available on numerous websites, and do not know the original source of the plan.

Simple one board nest box plan.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Native Species Profile - Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

The Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) is found across eastern North America from the Atlantic Coast west to the Great Plains.  It ranges north into southern Canada and New England and south to the Gulf Coast.  Its range extends south into Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

An adult Cottontail Rabbit "periscoping" for a better view above vegetation

Thursday, March 21, 2013


White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are curious animals.  If you are walking through the woods and you see one and it doesn't run off immediately, stop in your tracks.  Remain as motionless as possible.

The deer will want to know what you are about.  They will try to get you to move. They will stomp their feet.  They sometimes snort.  They almost always will bob their heads from side - partly to try to get you to react and partly to get a better view of you.  Like in these photos of a doe from 2008.

Hey! What are you doing?

Maybe if I bob my head this way you'll move?

How about now?

Still nothing?

Okay.  I've seen enough.  I'm leaving now.

Sometimes if you remain still, the deer will actually approach closer.  Like this pair of yearlings photographed in August 2008.

I see you over there with the camera!

I see you too!

Don't make us bob our heads at you!

No reaction, huh? We're coming closer.

I will bob my head at you again!
No reaction from you?  What if I just stare at you instead?

What if I rotate my ears?

I'm coming up there too.

Now I am going to act shy.

Okay.  I am going to go eat  You stare at him for a while

Enough of this.  I am hungry too!

If you are patient when approaching White-tailed Deer,  you can often observe completely natural behaviors.  However, they will remain skittish.  It may seem that they are ignoring you, but if you move too quickly or make a noise that they do not like and they will show you their namesake tail as they quickly bound away.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Today, at 7:02 AM EST, Winter ended and Spring Began.  The first day of Spring is also known as the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.  The word Equinox comes from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).  On this date the sun is striking directly on the equator, resulting in approximately equal amounts of daylight and darkness around the globe. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Adaptations - Camouflage

A simple definition of the word adaptation is a physical trait or behavior that helps a living organism survive in its habitat.

One of the best known adaptations is camouflage.  Camouflage helps an animal blend in with its surroundings or makes the animal look like something else.

In many species of birds, the bird itself is not camouflaged, but it protects its eggs with camouflage.  This means that when the bird leaves the nest, the eggs are difficult to see and thus camouflaged.

One example of this is the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).

The Killdeer is a medium-sized shorebird that is often found far from water.  Many Killdeer are found in open habitats across North America.  In Mid-Michigan they can often be found in parks, fields, golf courses, and unpaved parking lots.  They are also frequently seen foraging on gravel roads.

A nesting Killdeer

Killdeer nest on the ground in open spaces.  They hollow out a space on the soil and lay their eggs directly on the ground.  When the female Killdeer leaves the nest to look for food, the eggs are protected by their speckled coloring which camouflages them against their background.

A Killdeer nest with four eggs

A nesting Killdeer, when approached, will try to lead a predator away from the nest, trusting that the camouflage will protect the eggs.

For more information on Killdeer visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Snake for St. Patrick

According to legend, Saint Patrick is responsible for the lack of snakes in Ireland.  He is said to have chased them into the sea for attacking him while he was undertaking a 40 day fast.  To this day Ireland has no snakes.

The science of why Ireland has no snakes has nothing to do with Saint Patrick or any other saint.  Ireland's lack of snakes can be attributed to ice.  Ireland was covered with glaciers during more than one ice age.  The most recent ice age, which ended about 11,000 years ago covered over three quarters of the island with ice.  The remainder of Ireland was too cold for snakes.

During this last glacial period, a land bridge connected Ireland with the rest of Europe, allowing some species to populate Ireland, but snakes were not among them.  When the glaciers melted the sea levels rose, covering the land bridge, leaving Ireland without snakes.

Here in Mid-Michigan, we are lucky that the snakes were able to return after the glaciers receded.  They play an important role in our ecosystem as an effective predator of many small animals.  They in turn are preyed upon by many birds and mammals.

So in honor of yesterday's St. Patrick's Day celebrations,  I give you a snake.

Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Four Fossils

There is nothing that will disappoint a kid more than telling them that they can't go outside their door and find a dinosaur fossil in their backyard.  No one has ever found a dinosaur fossil anywhere in Michigan.  Our fossils are either very old or very young.

We have many fossils that are younger than the retreat of the last glacier that covered Michigan (about 11 thousand years ago).  Our fossils of mammoths and mastodons are from this time period. 

Then there is a long time period for which Michigan has almost no rocks.  Our next youngest layer is over 200 million years old and dates to the Pennsylvanian Period (approximately 320 - 300 Million Years Ago).  Much of the coal found in Michigan formed during this time period, when parts of Michigan were covered by rich, mucky swamps.

Our richest layer of fossils is even older, dating to the Devonian (approx. 415 - 355 MYA) and Silurian (approx. 445- 415 MYA).  During much of this time Michigan was covered by a warm, salty, tropical ocean and located near the equator!  So the fossils that are found most often in Michigan are those of sea creatures.

Four Michigan fossils.  Each sample measures about 3 inches long.

The fossil on the upper right is the one that people in Michigan are probably most familiar with.  It is a type of extinct colony forming animal known as a Hexagonaria coral, better known as "Petoskey stone".  This polished form is Michigan's official state stone. Many people look for these fossils on the beaches along Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  When smoothed out by waves, the familiar hexagon surrounding a star pattern is visible.

A Hexagonaria coral "Petoskey Stone" on a Lake Michigan beach
My sample of Hexagonaria was never polished by waves.  It was picked up by a glacier somewhere north of here and left behind when the glacier melted.  It was found in a farm field in Mid-Michigan.  It is probably more than 350 million years old.

An unpolished Hexagonaria

The next fossil is another extinct form of coral.  Unlike the Hexagonaria, this one usually did not form large colonies.  It liked to live as an individual instead of being crowded by its neighbors.  This one is called a "horn" or Rugosa coral.  It formed a horn shape that could grow up to three foot long.  This example is a cross section.  This sample was found on a Lake Michigan beach.

A cross-section of a Rugosa or "horn" coral in limestone

The third fossil is of another extinct species called a Stromatoporoid.  Like corals, Stromatoporoids formed large reefs in the tropical ocean that covered Michigan.  For a long time they were thought to be related to corals, but by examining structures within the fossils it was decided that they were more closely related to sponges.  The small regularly spaced structures are called mamelons and may have been used to take in and let out water.  This Stromatoporoid sample was found when digging a hole in Mid-Michigan.  Just like the Hexagonaria fossil, this one was picked up by a glacier and deposited when the glacier retreated.

A Stromatoporoid fossil

The final fossil is a limestone cobble containing broken pieces of Bryozoa.  Also known as "moss animals" Bryozoans are another type of aquatic colony-forming animals.  Bryozoa are not extinct.  There are over five thousand species that are alive today (including some that live in fresh water).  The Bryozoans in this rock formed colonies that branched out and looked like many species of coral do today.  Because of this resemblance, they are often confused with corals or plants.  This sample was also found on a Lake Michigan beach.

Bryozoa fossils in limestone

So while it may be disappointing to know that if you live in Mid-Michigan you won't find a dinosaur fossil in your yard, consider yourself lucky.  You might find something much, much older and more surprising.

A Butterfly for All Seasons

Last week I did a post on butterflies and their host plants.  Most of the species that I described are ones that we will not see as adults for at least a couple of months.  Many species overwinter as pupae or migrate into Mid-Michigan later in the year, but there is one species to keep your eyes open for now.

The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinters as an adult and can often be found sunning and even flying in forest clearings during warm days throughout the winter.  It emerges from hibernation early in the spring, often looking a bit tattered, as soon as temperatures will support activity.

Because of this ability to survive through winters, the Mourning Cloak is the one species of butterfly in Mid-Michigan that you are likely to encounter as an adult in all four seasons.  It mates early in the spring so that its larva can take advantage of fresh leaf growth on birch, aspen, elm, and especially willow trees.  The larva mature into adults by June/July and become inactive until fall when they actively feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, and some flower nectar before entering hibernation.

Keep your eyes open for this butterfly, they should be emerging now.