Thursday, July 28, 2016

Nature Geek Vacation Destination - Great Serpent Mound (Peebles, OH)

Okay, this is really more of a history or archaeology geek destination than a nature geek destination, but it was my favorite thing about my recent vacation so I am including it here.

As a kid, I remember seeing an aerial photograph of Great Serpent Mound in a book and being amazed.  Finally, the opportunity came up to visit the site.

Great Serpent Mound is located in southern Ohio near the village of Peebles.  It is approximately 6.5 hours away from Mid-Michigan by car.  The site is maintained by the Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society). The Arc of Appalachia (a local land trust/preserve system) operates a gift shop and small museum on the site.  There is a short, but excellent video showing on a loop at the museum; make sure to take the time to watch it.  There is an $8 parking fee for visiting the site.

Great Serpent Mound - looking south from near the head of the mound

Great Serpent Mound is what is known as an effigy mound - this means it is an earthen mound created in the shape of a person, animal, or symbol.  It is not a burial mound.  There are three burial mound located on the property, but Great Serpent Mound was probably never a burial.  Instead it was probably used for ceremonial purposes.  Various archaeological excavations on the site date the Great Serpent Mound to somewhere between 400 and 1400 years old.  It may have been torn down and rebuild several times.

The largest of three burial mounds located on the site

What makes Great Serpent Mound so special.  It is the largest effigy mound in the world.  It measures approximately just over a 1/4 mile long (1348 feet) and is several feet tall.  The scale can only truly be appreciated from above.  There is a viewing tower, but the slope of the land means that you cannot see the entire serpent even from the top of the tower.  When you remember that this was constructed entirely by hand using wood, stone, and bone tools the achievement of its construction becomes even more remarkable.

The viewing tower at Great Serpent Mound

My map of the Great Serpent Mound showing the orientation of the site and location of the viewing tower (copied from various sources)

Great Serpent Mound from the viewing tower - the spiral tail is to the left and the head is out of sight to the right rear

Aerial view #2

Aerial view #3

Great Serpent Mound is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  If you are a history geek like me, this site is a must-see.  It is quite simply one of the most impressive man-made locations I have ever visited.

Looking northward along the west flank of the serpent

The spiral tail of Great Serpent Mound

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Nature Geek Vacation Destinations - Mammoth Cave National Park (Mammoth Cave, KY)

It's been a while since there has been a new post on this blog.  Regular visitors to this site will probably notice a pattern.  I try to publish new posts every week day during the school year and at least three times a week during the summer.  However, every year (typically in July), this site goes dark for a week or two while Shara and I go on vacation.  This year's trip took us south through Ohio, into Kentucky, and back up through Indiana, Illinois, and into Iowa before returning home to Michigan.

We typically do lots of "science geek" and "history geek" things on our vacations - visiting museums, nature centers, public gardens, historic sites, etc..  Over the next few posts I plan on sharing a few of the highlights.

One of the stops on our trip was at Mammoth Cave National Park.  Mammoth Cave is the world's largest cave system.  Currently four hundred five (405) miles of interconnecting passages have been mapped! 

Much of the bedrock in Kentucky consists of layers of either sandstone, shale, or limestone. Mammoth Cave (any many other caves found in Kentucky) formed as a result of flowing water dissolving layers of limestone and leaving the shale and sandstone layers behind.  Many  features in the caves (stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, soda straws, etc.) form as dissolved minerals in the water are deposited on the ceiling, walls, or floor of the cave.

The National Park Service offers a number of tours in the cave.  The tours range in distance from 1/4 mile to 5 miles, and vary in time from 1.25 hours to 6 hours in length.  We chose to take one of the shortest options - the Frozen Niagara Tour.  This tour takes place at an entrance to the cave system that was created in 1924 to provide easy access to this portion of the cave. 

Visitors to the cave are not alone.  Other species either live in the caves or use the caves as shelter.  Species include eyeless cave fish that are adapted to life in the dark, cave salamanders, cave crayfish, cave crickets, Allegheny Wood Rats (also known as "pack rats"), and bats.  The bats hibernate in the cave and are mostly absent during the summer months.

An Allegheny Wood Rat nest illuminated by our guide's flashlight - the things on the ceiling are cave crickets

Cave crickets!

While the animals are cool, the focus of the tour is on the unique geologic features.


Visitors to the cave are asked to not use touch any of the cave's surfaces.  Natural oils from human skin can actually disrupt (and stop) the process of mineral deposition.  In the past, before the cave became a national park, visitors were allowed to write their name on the ceiling of some portions of the cave.  While this "historic graffiti" is preserved, anyone that does this today will be given a hefty fine and potentially receive jail time.

Humans can have another catastrophic effect on the caves.  We are a major cause for the spread of White Nose Syndrome.  This fungal disease has killed millions of hibernating bats across eastern North America.  Humans spread the disease by visiting caves that are infected and then failing to properly decontaminate before visiting other caverns.  The spores from the fungus travel along with us and infect bats in the new cave.  After leaving Mammoth Cave, visitors are required to walk across disinfecting mats to treat their shoes with a fungicide.

Shara in her #Save the Bats t-shirt from the Organization for Bat Conservation

Mammoth Cave is located about eight hours from Mid-Michigan and could easily be visited during a long weekend excursion.  If you want to take one of the cave tours it is recommended that you reserve a space on the tour ahead of time - some of the tours sell out.

I don't have a cool #Save the Bats t-shirt (yet)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Happy Apollo 11 Day!

Forty-seven years ago on 20 July 1969 at at 9:56:15 PM EST, mankind stepped on the moon for the first time when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Lunar Module "Eagle" onto the a flat volcanic plain known as the Mare Tranquillitatus or "Sea of Tranquility".  Nineteen minutes later he was joined on the surface by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

Armstrong and Aldrin became the first members of the world's most exclusive club.  They were the first of only twelve men to ever set foot on the moon - the last was in 1972.

Landing astronauts on the moon inspired a generation of scientists and ordinary people to dream that anything was possible.  In 2004, the United States announced its intent to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.  Funding for this program was cancelled in the 2010 federal budget to the dismay of many including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Today the dream of a child to become an astronaut and walk on the moon is only a dream.

Neil Armstrong died in 2012.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Civilian Conservation Corps Museum at North Higgins Lake State Park

One final photograph from the DNR Academy of Natural Resources.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worker statue at North Higgins Lake State Park

North Higgins Lake State Park is home to the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum.  During the 1930s and '40s, this was the site of Michigan first tree nursery - trees grown at this site were used to replant forests across northern Michigan.  CCC workers in Michigan also built roads and dams, constructed state and national park buildings, fought fires, and more.  The museum is open daily from now through Labor Day (September 5th).  For more information, visit the Michigan History Center website.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sad news from Wings of Wonder

Sad news from the Wings of Wonder Facebook page:

"A bit of sad news to share . . . our littlest 'family' member, Ned, has passed away suddenly. Ned, a Northern Saw Whet Owl, showed signs of illness on July 9th and was gone by July 11th. We are currently awaiting the results from an autopsey so I will share that information when I receive it. Ned was one of our most popular raptors, delighting thousands of folks over the many years with his cuteness, small size, beauty and quirky personality. He will be so very, very missed . . . and I wish him well on his next journey. My loving thanks to little Ned for opening our eyes and hearts to the greatness of Northern Saw Whet Owls."

Ned made the trip to Mt. Pleasant a couple of times for the International Migratory Bird Day Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center.

Rebecca Lessard with Ned at the Ziibiwing Center (2016)

Shara and I have also been fortunate enough to visit Wings of Wonder on two occasions and see Ned (and all of the other WOW birds) at "home".

Ned in his flight enclosure at Wings of Wonder (2015)

Ned will be missed by many.   Contributions in Ned's memory can be made to Wings of Wonder.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Maple leafs - more than just a hockey team from Toronto

Is a maple tree just a maple tree?


There are seven different native Maple (Acer) species in Michigan as well as several introduced species.

Yesterday (12 July 2016) was the second full day of the 2016 Michigan DNR Academy of natural resources.  While wandering around the grounds of the Ralph A. MacMullan (RAM) Conference Center over the past two days, I noticed that several different species of Maple trees could be found on the property.  While all three species  have similarities, they also bear distinct differences.

The first of the three trees was the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum).  This species can grow to an average height of 60 to 100 feet and reach a trunk diameter of up to 48 inches.  Michigan's record  Sugar Maple has a recorded diameter of more than 72 inches, but is only 78 feet tall.  Often for "big tree" listings, trees are measured only by their trunk diameter.

The leaves of Sugar Maples are simple (meaning one leaf on one stem) and typically have five lobes (rarely three).  The margins (edges) of the leaves have a few wavy teeth.  These leaves normally measure 2 to 5 inches wide and long (not counting the leaf petiole or stem).  The leaves of this species (and all maple species) are arranged in opposite pairs.

Sugar Maple leaf - note five lobes and wavy-toothed margins

The second Maple species that I noticed was the Red Maple (Acer rubrum).  Red Maples are similar in size to Sugar Maples.  They reach a height of 50 to 100 feet and normally have a trunk diameter of up to 32 inches.  The Michigan record Red Maple is actually larger than the state record Sugar Maple, with a trunk diameter of 74 inches and a height of 120 feet.

The leaves of the Red Maple are similar in size to those of the Sugar Maple (2-5 inches).  They also have three to five lobes - three lobes seem to be more common than five in most trees.  The majore difference between the Sugar Maple and this species is the leaf margins.  Red Maple leaves have margins with many sharply pointed teeth.

Red Maple leaf  - note five lobes and sharply serrated leaf margins

The third Maple species that I found was the Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum).  This species is significantly smaller than the previous two species, only reaching a height of 20 to 30 feet and a trunk diameter of 3 to 8 inches.  The state record Mountain Maple has a trunk diameter of only 11 inches and a height of 58 feet.

Like Red Maple, the margins of Mountain Maple Leaves are serrated (toothed).  The teeth on Mountain Maple leaves are much coarser than those of the Red Maple.  The leaves often smaller (3-5 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide) and have only three lobes.

Mountain Maple leaf - note three lobes and coarsely serrated leaf margins

In this final photograph you can see all three species for comparison.

Sugar Maple (top left), Mountain Maple (bottom left), and Red Maple (right)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

More Photos from the RAM Center at North Higgins Lake State Park

Yesterday was the first full day of 2016, Michigan DNR Academy of Natural Resources.  I had a little bit of time before and after class sessions to explore and photograph the area around the RAM Center.  A few of the photographs have been labeled, but not all of them.

Deer remains among conifer trees

Backlit spider web

Snail eggs on a decaying log

Daddy-long-legs (not a spider) camouflaged against pine bark

Birch Bark curls

Shelf fungus on a birch log

Daddy-long-legs on birch

Ripples in Higgins Lake

Monday, July 11, 2016

Morning in the woods

This week I am attending the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Academy of Natural Resources at the Ralph A. MacMullan (RAM) Conference Center at North Higgins Lake State Park.  I am going through the process to earn an Environmental Education Certificate.  Actually, I am one of twelve people in the pilot cohort for this certification program. 

So just a photo for today.  This picture was taken this morning at the RAM Center.