31
August

The Heavens Declare!

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September 31

The Heavens Declare!

This past Friday evening while camping at the Tahquamenon Falls State Park at the River Mouth campground I experienced a spectacular sight which I am not sure I have even seen before. We joined a few other campers on the bank of the river at the edge of the campground looking up in utter amazement of the beauty and quantity of stars that could be seen. The Milky Way was bright and other stars were so bright that for the first time in my life I saw stars reflecting on the water in front of me. The sky looked like a photo from an astronomy magazine or the Hubble telescope. Words can verily if at all describe what we saw. The black sky was filled with blotches of light and color from the multitude of stars.

 

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As I reflect on the sights of that evening I can only think of the verse, Psalms 19:1, The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. What more could we say?

If you would like to experience the beauty and awe of the night sky: head north on a clear evening away from the city lights. The farther north you go the better and darker it can be. Emmet County has the Headlands Dark Sky Park just west of Mackinaw City. Any beach or open area away from lights in the UP, are great places as well. The less light the better.

I apologize that the quality of the 2 accompanying photos are not as sharp and grain free as I would like, I am still learning to shoot at night and trying to find the right speed for my camera.

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3
August

Majestic Lotus

American Lotus Bed

American Lotus Bed

I have heard that there is American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea in Michigan, particularly in the Grand River in Ottawa County. As I am always interested in finding new plants that I have not yet seen or photographed, I was especially interested in an article in the Michigan Botanist about research of native populations of Louts in Michigan. The largest of these native populations are in the Grand River just upstream from Grand Haven. So a couple of weeks ago we drove out to recon the Stearns Bayou area to see if we could see them from the road and find access points to the water. The Grand River boat launch near Stearns seemed to be the best place to put in, so we launched our kayaks last evening and set out to find these majestic wonders.

American Lotus Leaf Upturned

American Lotus Leaf Upturned

We began by paddling back towards Stearns Bayou; looking at the map again would have helped. As we reached the turn into the bayou on the right, we went left as the article said they were half a mile from the bridge over the bayou, where the bayou meets the river. So we paddled through the opening it cattail marsh and photographed Great Blue Herons. We came to a “T” in the marsh and I decided to turn right and after paddle to what should be about half a mile from the bridge all I could see were more cattails with not exit to the river. So we turned around and headed back in the opposite direction only to find the same situation. So we returned the same way we had come and when we reached the boat launch the only words out of my mouth were “you’ve got to be kidding me” as I looked over at the Lotus reaching for the sky from the water. You could see them from the launch; well we had a good hour’s paddle anyways.

American Lotus

American Lotus

The Lotus has large creamy white to pale yellow blossoms on stems reaching a foot or more out of the water. These flowers are quite a sight. The large rounded leaves begin by laying flat on the water and later rise above the water in a funnel shape. The leaves cause water to bead up and run of when splashed on. We found some leaves at over two feet in diameter, one I used the blade of my paddle to get a size on measured out at 26 inches across. Leaves have the petiole attached in the center and have no sinus. The seed pods are quite unique with a somewhat funnel shape and flat on top with circular openings where each receptacle was. Each of these will contain a seed to drop out after the head breaks off and floats downstream.

American Indians used the tubers and leaves for food and believed that the plants had mystic powers and often kept tubers to ward of witches. This threatened species is found about 6 feet of quiet waters of rivers and lakes.

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25
July

Don’t Miss the Little Things

Sundew

Sundew

In my photography, my macro lens might be considered my main or “prime” lens during the warmer months. I enjoy shooting flowers and insects close up to see the detail and beauty often missed or taken for granted by just looking from a standing position so far away from the subject. But even more fun is finding things in creation that are so small most people wouldn’t even know that they are there. These may be small flowers, small flowers within an umbel, spike or raceme of flowers, mosses and lichens, small insects or close ups on insects so that the details of hairs or spins can clearly be seen. Macro photography opens up a whole new world to enjoy, even if it’s in your back yard. Another thing you can do is to carry a loop or magnifier so you can look at details in the field.

Timothy

Timothy

When you see a plant with small inconspicuous flowers or with very small flowers that are usually over looked, take a moment to look at and study them. In this post I have included flowers of Timothy Grass and Curly Dock. I suspect is safe to say most of you have never taken the time to look for let alone look at the flowers of these plants. Look at the intricate details of the Timothy flowers, quit amazing.

Stinging Nettle

You can also look at individual flowers of a group such as in the umbel of American Elder or single flowers of the Poke Weed. We see the almost stringy looking hanging spikes of the flowers of Stinging Nettle and keep on walking, but look close at the intricate beauty and detail.

Blanchards Cricket Frog

Blanchards Cricket Frog

And what about those small creatures we may over look? I recently found out that a park not far from my home is home to a population of the threatened Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs. These tiny frogs are only about an inch when grown and because they hang out in the vegetation at the edges of ponds and sit on floating vegetation in the water, they can blend in with their green and brown bodies making them easy to over look.

Mexican Bean Beetle Larvae

Mexican Bean Beetle Larvae

Small larval and nymph stages as well as small insects can also be easily overlooked. Some creatures we just don’t want to see like the Mexican Bean Beetles that ravage my beans in the garden, but take a close look before you squash them. They can look like creatures from a science fiction movie.

I don’t usually crop my photos outside of the camera expect for fitting to print sizes, but I have cropped most of these to help easier show the detail.

While you are out in the garden or walking, take time to look for and enjoy the often hidden beauty of the smaller things in the great out-of-doors.

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11
June

Persistence and Timing

Rose Twisted-Stalk - Prebloom

Rose Twisted-Stalk – Prebloom

In May of 2015 I located a plant at the Headlands just outside of Mackinaw City in northern Michigan. It had a somewhat similar look to False Solomon Seal except the stem was branched.  I thought I recognized it as Twisted-Stalk from having seen it in books over the years. The plant wasn’t blooming yet so I stopped again in June on my way north and couldn’t even locate the plant. Did something (deer) eat it or did it look different after blooming? I’m not sure. That may be a question I can soon answer on a return June trip this year.

Rose Twisted-Stalk

Rose Twisted-Stalk

When I returned in mid May of this year I once again found the plant in exactly the same place as last year. Again it had buds, but wasn’t blooming yet. I paid close attention to location in relation to markers on the trail to aid in relocating it. I decided since I had missed the bloom the previous year by waiting a month to go back, that I needed to return sooner this time. Temperatures shot up into the 80’s that next weekend and I decided if I waited until after Memorial Day it might be too late. So I went just over a week later and found Rose Twisted-Stalk, Streptopus lanceolatus blooming. It was a breezy day and light was good but not the best for shooting in the woods but I was able to get some useable images. For those photographing flowers, I am finding that increasing the camera’s ISO to give you faster shutter speeds in helping get those low light pictures we would otherwise miss.

If you are from northern Michigan or are familiar with this plant, you may be asking why the bid deal? Well, this was a new plant for me. One that I have wanted to find for years of seeing it in the books while looking to identify others I had seen. Rose Twisted-Stalk may not be a bright showy flower, but it is a new one on my list that continues to grow.

As you find and learn plants around you and venture out to new areas check back if the plant isn’t blooming yet to see the flower and maybe help identify it. You too may have to make several visits over multiple years but it will be worth it. You may also want to add estimated return time to your calendar as I have missed several blooms by forgetting to go back at the right times.

As the temperatures rise and the bugs become bothersome, prairies and wetlands will come alive with blooms over the summer: waiting for you to find them.

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4
May

Be Careful

This blog is intended to educate people and share things in nature that I find and photograph as well as about places I visit to give the reader ideas and inspiration to visit these wonder natural areas. While today’s subject could possibly be under education, it is a topic I feel needs to be addressed. I have promoted “social media” as a resource for times and places to find natural features of interest. I have used posted information to determine when and sometimes where to go to look for a particular species of plant or butterfly. Facebook groups can be a great place to ask for help as well as report findings to others.

The problem that seriously concerns me is the tremendous amount of misinformation being posted by well meaning people who are not as expert as they may think. I will put it bluntly; you should research and think before giving your opinions (especially plant identifications) or keep those opinions to yourselves. This may seem harsh and insensitive but your misidentifications could cost someone their life. In just the past week, 50 percent of the posts asking for identification help on the Michigan Botanical Clubs facebook page have been very wrong. It seems that those who respond quickly and right away should spend more time studying and becoming familiar with the plants in the field before being so quick to give identifications. Unfortunately the people who are expert botanists have better things to do with their time than watch facebook. They are probably spending their free time learning and studying.

Poison-Hemlock

Poison-Hemlock

A good illustration would be the above photo. If I posted this looking for identification help, I am all but certain that I would quickly be told it is Queen-Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot and someone would say it is edible. All would be very seriously wrong. It is Poison-Hemlock, Conium maculatum. Look at the details; the purple-spotted, slightly glaucous stem verses a hairy stem with no purple spotting. This plant can be extremely poisonous depending on the time of year, part of the plant and varying toxicity from plant to plant, determining the exact outcome of ingesting it. The point being if you ingested this plant, particularly the root you would be very very ill, if not very very dead in less time than you could try to get help. Ask Socrates as he is the best known victim of Poison-Hemlock.

When I first started doing interpretive hikes and talks in the late 1980’s, I was told by my teacher and mentor Karen Niels, not to act like you know the answer if you don’t. Be truthful and offer to find the answer rather than give out wrong or misinformation. This has been and still is great advice. So, pay attention to the details; check and recheck your identifications before handing out information that is wrong or could be dangerous to someone. There is nothing wrong in not knowing and these are good opportunities to learn. Get out find, study, take pictures of later identification help and get familiar with the plants around you so that you really will know what you see.

 

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28
March

The True Harbinger-of-Spring

Harbinger-of-Spring

Harbinger-of-Spring

Emma J. Cole in the Grand Rapids Flora said of Erigenia bulbosa, “Our earliest spring flower, it appears even before the snow has left the shady nooks.” Harbinger-of-Spring is truly our earliest spring ephemeral as it will bloom in March of years with a mild end to winter; otherwise it blooms in April lasting sometimes into May. Found in open deciduous woods, this hardy little flower is a real treat for those finding it early in the spring when other early flowers aren’t quite blooming yet. The Spring Beauties, Hepaticas and False Rue Anemone are close behind even though the weather seems more cool than warm and we could still see snow at this time of year.

Harbinger-of-Spring Plant

Harbinger-of-Spring Plant

Harbinger-of-Spring is in the Apiaceae or Parsley family and is the easiest to identify from this group. One reason it is so easily identified, is the early bloom time, as no others in the family are blooming in early spring. With nearly 3000 species worldwide and nearly 400 species in North America, it is the only species in the genus Erigenia. Small white flowers with Blackish-red anthers clustered in leafy-bracted umbels lead to the name “Salt and Pepper”. The perennial plant rises from a small, deep-seated tuber and is small and inconspicuous at bloom time but becomes “larger”, leafier and more spreading.

Harbinger-of-Spring Leaves

Harbinger-of-Spring Leaves

The compound leaves are 1 to 2 or 3 times divided with leaf segments linear to oblong. The leaflets often are not fully developed. Leaves are few and inconspicuous when blooming begins, but become more plentiful and visible.

This one of the many treats for those willing to get out early and look in our woodlands for early spring ephemerals.

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16
March

Nature’s Little Heat Generator

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus is usually the first wildflower I look for each year. It can bloom in February or March, depending on the year’s weather and snow pack. I have been telling people for years that Skunk Cabbage generates heat to melt through the snow and bloom early, often while the ground in the wood is still under a considerable amount of snow. In the late winter of 2015 I decided to try and document this phenomenon for myself. By using a laser thermometer I took readings on several different days and various times, with no real temperature variation from the plants to surrounding soil. Since that didn’t seem to work I decided to try again, this time using digital stick thermometers that could be pushed into the soil and inserted into the hood or spathe. This made a huge difference in the findings. While the plants were actually past blooming and the peak heat producing period and with only a few still at the end of flowering, I was still able to get some interesting readings and confirm what I had been teaching along.

Skunk Cabbage With Thermometers

Skunk Cabbage With Thermometers

At this stage I found a difference of 10 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit from the inside of the hood to soil 10 inches away. These temperatures were still close to and slightly above the air temperature but warmer than the soil.  The exception was one plant growing in water, which had a difference of only 6 degrees. Had I taken these readings at the height of blooming, there would have been a much broader difference as found by a study done by Biologist Roger Knutson. The plant generates heat to keep the inside temperature of the hood up to as much as 60 degrees warmer than the surround air temperature. These temperatures are maintained for around two weeks during blooming. The spadix has no starch of its own but it uses starch stored in the large fibrous roots to generate the heat through respiration. Knutson also found that when severed from the roots, the temperature of the spadix immediately begins to drop.

So while I was too late for the local plant to see the real impressive ability of this thermogenic plant for this year, I will continue to check temperatures in the future. It may not be too late for the northern plants for this year.

Start looking for spring bloomers. I saw a report of Hepatica blooming in the Waterloo State Recreation Area and today the American Hazel is blooming in my yard.

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28
January

Winter Botany

 

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

Most of us learn to identify wildflowers and weeds during the growing season, but can you take your familiarity with these plants to the dead remains in winter and identify them against a snowy backdrop? A good place to start is with plants that you know are growing in a specific place during the growing season and have obvious characteristics. For instance the Common Milkweed which recognize by many people can be identified year around. It is easy to find and is easily recognizable with its open warty pods. Some species such as the Rattlesnake Master look the same in winter as it does when flowering, except it is brown rather than whitish. Some plants retain all or part of the leaves, but most have some indication as to where the leaves were attached. Some flowers also have seed remaining in tubes or pods that split open and seeds fall out with the winter winds.

Swamp Mallow Pod

Swamp Mallow Pod

Pay attention to plants from the time you first see them until after flowers have faded and have been replaced by seed pods or fruit. At this point the main difference in winter may only be the color as the part of the plant dies back, changing from green to brown or black. The accompanying photos were from the edge of the Kalamazoo River near Saugatuck. I have photographed the Swamp Mallow there when in bloom but never in winter, so I decided to see if I could find them. By remembering where they were this past summer it wasn’t hard to find them. While there I also found other wildflower remains and was able to identify and photograph them as well.

There are a couple of books in print that can help you identify wildflowers in winter, but familiarity with the plants growth habits and characteristics goes a long ways to identifying what you see. If you find something that you cannot figure out, remember where it is or mark it and return in spring and summer to see if you can find and identify it then. Another helpful activity to help learn and become familiar with wildflowers at all stages of growth and maturity, is to grow them from seed and plant them in your garden.

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6
January

A Sixth Sense?

Cardinal

Did you ever notice how a day or two ahead of a major weather event like a winter storm that the bird feeders are very busy with more birds than you may normally see at one time? Then all of a sudden they are gone, hunkered down and sheltered in place. When the weather is nice and sunny birds kind of come and go to the feeds throughout the day. But when a major storm is coming there are many birds all day long, just gorging on the feed you have put out.

Another instance of birds sensing danger was documented during a study on Golden-winged Warbler migration back to North America from their wintering grounds. When the flight data was studied, it was found that the birds suddenly made a drastic change in their course. As if they sensed something, they veered off course and went a considerable distance out of their way. The warblers adjusted their route while still 500 miles and several days ahead of a storm that was brewing and coming towards their flight path. That storm spawned at least 80 tornados and killed 35 people. It is thought that the birds could sense infrasound which is low-frequency sound that is typically below the normal limit of human hearing. The one question I have is that this possibly explains a storm that is active, but what about the times when there is no active rumbling storm yet? It is also thought that birds can sense air pressure changes such as with an approaching storm.

I also noticed that after the Duck Lake fire in 2012 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, that there were no bird or animal skeletons or remains. There was however wildlife activity at the fringes of the fire. Those small rodents and insects that were under ground below the heat came out soon after the fire and were easy to find in the burned over area. Coincidence, I think not?

The stories of animals carrying on and then running inland ahead of a tsunami also is thought to be because animals can also feel or sense vibrations such as an earthquake. They may not have more senses than humans, just a higher sensitivity to the vibrations.

I have also found it interesting when my pet rabbit was out on the lawn and all of a sudden ran for cover of the bushes by the house. Then a few seconds later, a hawk flew over the house. There is no way that rabbit saw the hawk with the house in the way. I also observed ducks making a lot of noise and fleeing the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay one time, only to see an eagle fly over a minute or so later.

Do they have a sixth sense? Probably not, but somehow are more attuned to sounds and pressure changes than we humans are.

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9
December

Trickle Down

A few months ago I wrote about sharing with my great nephew about photography and nature, he went on to win two categories in his age group in a photo contest with photos taken the day we were together in August. There have been people who have influence me over the years and what I have learned from them is often shared with others or influences what I share. My grandfather taught me to enjoy the out of doors and a conservation ethic I will never forget. As a trapper he always made it a point to not over trap an area, always leaving a sustaining population for next year. My mother has always loved gardening and has passed on that love to me and first introduced me to wildflowers. Then there was the naturalist of a new nature center in Benton Harbor who came to the school to do a program at the request of a 12 year old boy. Thanks Chuck Nelson from Sarett Nature Center. I also spent many Sunday afternoons learning from Chuck and others there. When I was first asked to lead wildflower walks at Hoffmaster State Park, Karen Neils taught me how to give effective interpretive talks to a group. Things have progressed and I have learned from others over the years. Over the past 20 or so years I have had the privilege to share my passion and love of creation with many, many people. Through this process I have learned and continue to learn more each day. Where am I going with this? Well I am going to highlight a couple of people who have attended my Prairie class for the Master Naturalist program and you can see how what started with my grandfather is now moved on to those helping inner city kids in a Grand Rapids neighborhood get out and experience the world around them.

Ruth O. Prairie Belding

Ruth O. Prairie Belding

First, I was asked to go and see a prairie planting in a yard in Belding, just north of Grand Rapids. As I neared the address, the above photo is what I saw. In a lot between two houses was a beautifully full prairie. There were many grasses and flowers blooming and bursting with color. As I walked through the area I was impressed at the quality and success of this project. Another aspect to this planting was utilitarian, with native plants placed along a ditch; it is also helping to control flooding of the neighbor’s property. While enjoying the beauty, I was humbled as I learned that the lady who had planted this had been in the first Master Naturalist program in 2003 and had taken what she learned and did something magnificent with it.

Kids-Planting-Ken-O-Sha-by-Janet-Staal

Kids-Planting-Ken-O-Sha-by-Janet-Staal

Another project is truly amazing in its size and potential outreach possibilities. Jason and Alison attended the Master Naturalist program a few years ago and are often welcome participants in Sunday afternoon interpretive hikes at the Hudsonville Nature Center. Jason has shared with me over the past few years of their involvement and interest in the Plaster Creek area, particularly the Ken-O-Sha Park. Jason asked me to come and look at an area of the park near Ken-O-Sha School that they wanted to plant prairie in. I arrived to find an old ball field and open lawn totaling an acre or more. Michael Bruggink, landscape architect who deals with native plantings was also there and we talked about what would need to be done to turn this grassy lawn into prairie. That was in early September and in late October my son donated the use of his tractor, tiller and time to bust up the sod and prepare half an acre for planting. Now in early December neighbors and students from the school have planted this half acre with seed Jason has collected. Phase one is in and another planting will be in the works to finish transforming an old ball field into a native tall grass prairie.

Up-Close-by-by-Janet-Staal

Up-Close-by-by-Janet-Staal

Jason and Alison’s work has not only been to install a prairie, but much more for these inner city students to learn about the natural world around them. They have taken them to Blandford Nature Center to learn about prairies and collect seed. As is often the case, these students had no experience with the natural world and went from not wanting to touch a plant to handling the seeds with excitement. Jason and Alison were able to secure funding so that Blandford Nature Center could collaborate and create the resources for teachers regarding the prairie plants and resources for the students to make connections through their reading, writing and science education. . There are also plans for a rain garden in the spring.

Ken-O-Sha by Janet Staal

Ken-O-Sha by Janet Staal

This link is to a blog from Blandford Nature Center about this project, it is worth reading: https://bncenviromentalconsulting.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/beyond-the-classroom/

Sometimes others can take what we share and go far beyond what we can do. If you have knowledge and interest in the natural world, get out and volunteer and share through nature centers, schools and other opportunities.

The accompanying photos of the Ken-O-Sha students and project are used with permission from Blandford Nature Center and were taken by Janet Staal, Environmental Education Consultant.

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