Friend or Foe?

Most of my life I have believed that Praying Mantises are natural beneficial insects for our gardens and environment. But are they really? I would even suggest we begin, as I have, treating them as an invasive species. Now hear me out before you go calling me crazy.

First of all, we do not have any “native” Mantis species in Michigan, the closet is the Carolina Mantis which is native south of Michigan and has been recorded on a few occasions mostly in the southeast part of the state. This North American native is only about 2 inches long and likely does no harm to our native insect populations. The egg case is small and narrow with two lines visible on it.

Next, we have the mantis that I grew up with thinking it belonged here but later found that it was actually the European Mantis and native to Europe. This species is about an inch longer than the Carolina Mantis and may have a minor impact on our native insects. The European egg case is a bit bigger but still long and somewhat narrow, it is shown on the left in accompanying photo.

Finally, we have my nemeses mantis, the large Chinese Mantis that was introduced from China in 1896 to combat pests. It has been and is being sold as a beneficial insect control for pests in your garden. This species is the largest in North America coming in at about 5 inches long, give or take a bit. They are voracious eaters, devouring almost everything that moves in front of them. If handled incorrectly they will attempt to bite and can give a painful pinch to the hand holding it. They are known to eat almost anything that comes before them including insects of all types, hummingbirds, insect pollinators, butterflies, small reptiles and amphibians. One that we captured this past some on a Prairie walk at the Hudsonville Nature Center was eating a honey bee. This mantis lays not just one, but can lay two or more egg cases each year. The egg case is shorter and larger around than the other two species making it easy to identify, it is pictured on the right in the accompanying photo.

At the Hudsonville Nature Center, we have a six-acre planted prairie. In the past it has been occupied by many pollinator and butterfly species. A few years ago, I noticed the decline in the presence and numbers of both species and individuals of the many species of not only the pollinators and butterflies, but insect in general in this parcel. Then while walking through this prairie the end of March 2018, I began to find a large number of Chinese egg cases. That afternoon I collected over 100 egg cases in the six acres. Many were attached to woody stems and higher up from the ground than the few European ones I found that day. I collected all that I found and removed them. This past summer the butterflies are returning and the other pollinators are slowly being seen again.

So, I ask you is the Chinese Mantis a friend or foe in our Michigan ecosystems? Personally, I go so far as to call them an invasive species causing much harm.

Left: European, Right: Chinese

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Baby It’s Cold Outside

What a winter we have been having. Like they say about Michigan’s weather, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes it will change”. Well this time it’s a bit more than five minutes. Two weeks ago, there was little ice in the area and it wasn’t safe enough to be on, then we had a couple of nights with temperatures below 0. Now that we have ice on the lakes, rivers and along Lake Michigan for the first time this winter, it’s just too cold to go out. I normally like to shot ice formations along the Lake Michigan shore line and on the light houses. But with high temperatures today around 0 and the windchill hovering around -25 or colder I haven’t left the house.

So, what do you do on these kinds of days when you are getting the bug to get out and shoot? The first thing is to set the camera and tripod by a clean window and shot the snow clinging to the trees and bushes by the house. I would have shot some finches in the Lilac bushes but they didn’t go there today. Any time you can use your camera, you are practicing and hopefully refining your knowledge and understanding of the settings. Then you catch up on seed orders, newsletters, listen to webinars or whatever else needs to be done so you can get out as soon as it’s safe enough.
Well I hope to get out and shoot some yet this week but as soon as this Polar Vortex moves on it is forecast to be 49 degrees and rain, so much for the ice formations on the light houses and such. But that’s Michigan, get used to it!

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Intriguing Ice Formations

A few years ago, I heard of a phenomenon that happens on Frostweed plants when it freezes. I have wanted to see and photograph these formations that go by many names such as ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fingers and ice filaments to name a few. My problem is that I never think about going out and looking for them until it gets cold in November, particularly during gun deer season, not a time I frequent the Allegan State Game Area (ASGA) where these plants grow in abundance. But a couple of weeks ago I was out early enough one morning to catch some frost on the prairie plants and trees. As I walked to a picturesque scene I had seen from the road, I noticed what looked like odd shapes of cotton around the base of some plants and upon further exploration realized it was ice. The ice was soft with a texture reminiscent of fine cotton but very fragile when touched. There were no two formations the same, some in delicate ribbons and others in what looked like spun ice around the stems.

Frostweed Flower

These formations can happen on various species of plants but the genus Crocanthemum is best know for this, hence the common name Frostweeed. In Michigan we have two species found in dry sandy plains or savannah type areas such as the ASGA. Both species have noticeable yellow flowers when in bloom. When the first frosts of fall come, the plant extrudes water from the lower stems near or just above ground level. With the freezing temperatures the water freezes, causing some very interesting ice formations. Many of these are very thin layers of ribbon like ice, each one taking on its own style.

If you want to experience the beauty and uniqueness of these formations, you should locate Frostweed when it is blooming in the summer and return to the area when we have some of the first frost of the season. Go early as the ice melts away when the sun hits the plants and the temperatures rise above freezing.

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Life on a Rock

Columbine on Rock

As one drives along the Lake Huron shoreline, heading east out of Cedarville on highway 134, one begins to notice a fair amount of rock. This rock is likely a type of limestone known as dolomite or dolostone. Dolomite is a magnesium-rich form of limestone and in the eastern Upper Peninsula it appears as exposed bedrock. Especially along the shoreline where there are huge boulders and plates of bedrock exposed. While there are large bare areas that may be covered in lichens, some organic matter does collect in depressions and crevasses allowing for plants to grow. As impressive as this harsh environment is for plants to survive, the real area of amazement and awe is to the east on a large rock known as Drummond Island.

While Drummond Island is an area of diverse and interesting natural habitats and features, the one that draws me the most is the alvar known as Maxton Plains. Alvar is only found in three areas of the world with the Upper Peninsula being one of them. Being one of the most popular four-wheel drive destinations in the United States, people bring jeeps and other four-wheel drive vehicles from all over the country to off road on this big rock. But as they drive through this flat rock area, raising clouds of dust as they pass, do they realize all the resilient and rare plants that they pass by? In these flat areas that look like pavement, you will find large open areas which appear to be barren except for some lichens. But look more closely. With top soil at 10 inches or less and many areas much less, there is an amazing world of smaller or even stunted plants. Rock Sandwort and Early Saxifrage seem to rise from the rock. Creeping Junipers seem to reach their tentacle like limbs from a central spot which may be a crack in the rock allowing them to put roots down in search of moisture and nutrients. Some of the low grassy areas on this bed rock may harbor rare and threatened species like the Small Skullcap, a small blue flower I found purely by accident.

Maxton Plains

As you move away from the barren areas of exposed rock to the areas with a little more soil or organic matter, you will find large flat open areas of grasses and sedges. The time of year will dictate the color and intensity of the show from the forbes growing there. Sone areas this past week when I was there where yellow with Ragwort and Indian Paint Brush which tends to be more yellow and orange than red on the island. Some drier sites where pink with the feathery seed plumes of Prairie Smoke, another threatened species.

Field of Prairie Smoke

How can these plants persist in such a harsh environment? Many are either unique to the island or are also found in dry prairies in other parts of the state. There is an inundation of water in spring or after rains that sustain the drought tolerant plants. Others are in areas closer to the forest where the topography may drop off slightly and hold water longer and these areas may have more soil. All of these conditions make for a tremendous diversity in such a small area.

Next time you are in the eastern UP or on Drummond Island, take an hour or two or three and explore the flat plains, you won’t be disappointed. If you are four-wheeling, take a break and spend a little time out of the vehicle here rather than just stopping long enough to read the interpretive sign if you stop at all.

Be sure to click on the title at the beginning of this entry to see the full photo collection of one afternoon in the Maxton Plains.

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Snow and Red Trillium

Snow Trillium

Last June I wrote a piece entitled “Chasing Rarities” and in that piece I state that Snow Trillium was know from only one location in Michigan. Later in the year I was contacted by Bill S. and informed that there were more populations. So, on April 21 Bill and his family graciously took me to and told me about more locations. The above photo was taken on the 21st at another location along the Grand River. While Trillium nivale is still the 2nd rarest Trillium in Michigan, I am pleased to learn that there are other thriving populations. Thank you, Bill and family, for your time and for sharing this information with me as I like to be as accurate as possible. I have also update the previous blog post to reflect this.

Snow Trillium in snow

Also, we have known that Trillium nivale blooms in early April each year. With 2018 being one of the coldest springs on record, I wanted to know if they would still bloom on time. While we usually say they bloom on April 4, I was not able to visit them until the 8th or four days later. Yes, there were several plants in bloom. Then on the 17th I was able to stop after being near Lansing and see them actually still blooming through the snow and ice. Again for those willing to get out early there are wildflowers to find and enjoy while most people think spring doesn’t come until May.

Red Trillium

While weather can affect when some plants bloom, many native species seem to bloom by the calendar rather than the weather. Yes, in the north with snow and ice lasting longer this year many may be a bit behind but I expect that they will catch up sooner than we think. A case in point is the Red Trillium or Trillium erectum. As I traveled north to near Traverse City on the May 15, to photograph this Trillium, both red and white were blooming nicely.
Depending on where you live, south to north will determine what you see blooming, but there is still time to get out and enjoy Michigan’s many spring wildflowers.

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What’s All The Buzz About?

We seem to be hearing more and more about the loss of bees, Monarch butterflies, and other insects in general. There are groups on both sides of the issues and they may both have some valid points, but also be aware that what has been reported as facts may not always be exactly true. Should we be concerned? I think so. I will share some information and thoughts, but I encourage each reader to do his or her own research and observations to draw your own conclusions.

The above photo was taken of me when I was 10 years old in 1970. This was only a portion of my insect collection. While most of the species in this photo are common, we seem to be seeing less and less numbers of them each year. Some of them have not been seen by most of us in the area in a very long time. I first noticed this when I was in my early 30’s and while I maintain a smaller insect collection for educational purposes, I try to collect photos of insects when possible. You see, I realized or thought that my over collecting as a child may have played a part in the disappearance of some less common species in the area in which I did much of my collecting. The farm chemicals or pesticides I am sure may have also contributed to this decline as well. There may also be other unseen factors at play here. A more recent practice (not by me) that I believe has affected moth, butterfly and other tree leaf eating insects was the unbridled spraying of forests and urban trees for the Gypsy moth not so many years ago. Another out of control and rampant practice is the over use of pesticides on completely unnatural lawns and landscapes. These chemicals turn our yards into toxic waste dumps, killing many beneficial organisms. You see, we have accepted this idea from the chemical companies that “bugs” are bad and should be euthanized. By not educating ourselves and understanding them we have developed unnecessary and unfounded phobias of spider, insects, and bats; all of which can be very beneficial. Only one tenth of one percent of all insects worldwide are pests or harmful. Many of our pest are form other continents and not natural here.

There are groups that say the Monarch butterfly is headed to extinction. Well numbers have been lower in the past and they have come back. The problem now is that we are on a constant down slide overall with higher years being lower and lower across the graph at https://monarchwatch.org/blog/uploads/2018/03/monarch-population-figure-monarchwatch-2018.png. Is there one answer to the loss? No, but rather a combination of loss of habitat, especially for fall nectar sources when preparing for and while migrating. Winter grounds are possibly also being destroyed according to some reports. The real areas of concern for milkweed loss may be the Midwest grain farming areas where milkweed is sprayed with herbicides, creating a gap in enough places to lay eggs on the journey north. Many Monarch groups strongly advocate for planting more milkweed, but we have more milkweed than Monarchs in most northern areas. We should be planting and maintaining native nectar sources as well. If you are planting milkweeds, use only native species and locally sourced seed. Also remember Monarchs are not endanger worldwide, only the eastern US migrating group. There are other populations that monarch groups seem to forget, so the species really isn’t endanger of extinction.

What about the bees? The exact amount of your food pollinated by bees is being debated by both sides. The truth is that our major source of food like corn, soy beans, and grains are all wind pollinated. We might better compare the amount of healthier fruits and vegetables that need bees. Tree fruits like apples, peaches and cherries as well as blueberries all need bees. There are several problems plaguing our honey bees, which are not native to North America but are used widely in crop pollination. Native bees are disappearing, most due to habitat loss. We have many species of native bees, over 340 species in Michigan alone. These are not major crop pollinators but do play an important role in pollination our native plants.
I have noticed over the last couple of years that my windshield gets many less bug splats than before. This is one gauge being used by scientist to indicate that insects in general are on a steep decline. So what, you may think. The ramifications are huge. Many birds, amphibians, and some mammals that rely on insects for food are declining. Insects help in pollination, decomposition of plant and other dead materials as well as being the food source I just mentioned.

To sum things up, the problems are compound and complex. But there may be some simplicity here as well. Putting our health and the wellbeing of the environment ahead of greed and not following the status quo will have far reaching but positive implications for all of us. The cause of these losses is not a single cause or source, but many. We have lost valuable tree cover that cools and purifies the air, cleans run off storm water helping to keep our waters clean. Natural habitat that provides homes, cover and food sources for bees, butterflies, bat, mammals and a whole host of other insects is slipping away to progress at alarming rates. Amphibians are vanishing along with the wetlands, particularly vernal pools that they breed in. These are all indicators of a very large and serious problem; loss and misuse of natural habitats and contamination of our waters, air and lands. Maybe, just maybe, taking better care of creation is better for us and our health.

I leave you with the following quote from a great man that was before our time but has affected all of us in a positive way. “I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifice to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor. The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder.” Thomas Jefferson

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Shooting Frost, Snow and Ice

Dreamy Beech by The River

As much as I would like to shot winter scenes, the weather in west Michigan doesn’t always cooperate. We get a lot to dark cloudy days in winter which makes for flat lighting without a lot of contrast or definition in the photos. This can especially be problematic for landscapes. Some days it pays to be at a location when there are breaks in the clouds to highlight subjects, like the Grand Have Light house in one of the accompanying photos. The dark sky can make for a more dramatic image or the dark, hazy light might just give or a dreamy, mythical look to the swans flying away from you. If you are shooting ducks for color and identification, good luck. Sometimes this dark, flat light can work for you. Case in point is the image I’ve titled “Dreamy Beech by The River”. This photo was taken late in the day, within an hour or so of sunset while it was snowing quit heavily. The low light works here.

Hoar frost

On a couple of days last week, we had cold nights in the single digits for temperatures and some sun in the mornings. The cold nights made what is known as Hoar Frost. This is beautiful in the mornings when it turns trees and weeds white and the sun shines on them. The problem is getting out early enough to shot before the sun and wind start to take the frost away. I have added a few photos here of the Hoar Frost to show the wonderful crystals that make up this phenomenon. When you photograph with a macro lens or look closely, the ice crystals are actually clear and very detailed geometric shapes. The crystals protrude outward, attached on one edge and protruding like a shelf of delicate ice. Dress warm and be ready to move slowly to get these photos and enjoy the beauty.

Snowy Field

Proper exposure with snow photos can be difficult and results unsatisfactory sometimes at best. While blue snow or blown out snow or ice is a common problem with winter photos, it doesn’t have to be. All of the accompanying photos were shot in full manual mode and white balance set to “Auto White Balance” on the camera. The f stops were in the middle to low ranges, which lets more light into the camera.

Even though it can be along cold winter, we can still shoot photos. It was enjoyable to get the macro lens out and shot ice and frost and then move on to plants as found in winter.

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Nature In Winter

As winter sets in, there is much to find and see in the out of doors. In this entry I will point out some of last summer’s left overs from birds and insects, as well as current overwintering forms of insects and animals. All is not as dead as it may seem when looking out over a field or marsh with the brown plant material left from last summer’s growth.

Muskrat Lodges

Most all animals in Michigan do not truly hibernate. Most can or due awaken during the winter with some being very active. Look for the large, rounded leafy nests in trees, these are winter shelters for the Fox Squirrels. Squirrels cut stems with leaves in the fall or late summer and make these nests which are actually leafy twigs stuck together to make the shelter. Screech Owls and some other birds may take refuge in a hollow of a tree or large bird house. Beaver and Muskrats make mounded “lodges” of plant material where they eat and shelter from the cold weather and predators. As seen in the photo, Muskrat lodges or “houses” as I used to call them, are fairly easy to see in marshy areas ounce the cattails begin to go down in winter. Muskrats will also use dens in banks along streams or ditches. Other animals are active in winter and it is easy to find their tracts in the snow, especially in the woods and along streams.

Nest 3

Winter is a great time to look for last summer’s bird nest. With the leaves off of the trees and shrubs, it is much easier to find them. Look up along roads for the hanging woven Oriole’s nest. Many species of birds, including Red-winged Blackbirds make nests that are low, below, at or near eye level, making them easy to see. Take a moment to look at the materials and structure of the nest. Look inside and out, how is it attached to the plant? How high off the ground and in what species of plant; these are all clues to help identify the bird that made the nest. Look for woodpecker holes in trees. The size and shape will help identify the maker.

Chinese Mantis Egg Case

Insects over winter in various stages, depending on the species. Some as eggs, just hatch larvae, fully or nearly developed larvae, pupa, cocoon or chrysalis or as an adult. Large silk moth cocoons can be found attached to plant material including tree branches from a couple of feet off the ground and upwards. Look for tent worm egg masses on cherry twigs. Praying Mantis egg cases are easy to sight attached to plant material. The large egg cases like the accompanying photo are Chinese Mantids. We do not have any native species here in Michigan. If you decide you want to bring home a cocoon or egg case, don’t bring it inside the house. It is warm and things with hatch too early and die as it will be to cold and not food if you release them outside. I leave them in an unheated garage and the timing is usually pretty close to normal. Just don’t forget about them.

Pine Cone Willow Gall

Winter is a great time to see how many different galls you can find. Each gall is unique to the insect that causes it. With around 1500 insects that cause galls in North America, they are so precise as to the gall form and the species of plant, that the insect can be identified or nearly so without the actual insect. As with the bird’s nests, galls are fairly easy to find in winter. Although you will be looking for those that are usually stem or bud galls, galls of some kind can affect nearly all parts of plants. Depending on the gall and insect species, you can often find a larvae or pupae inside the gall. Some do hatch in fall and have likely already laid eggs for next years generation. Galls come in all shapes and sizes, I have only shown a few more common ones here.

Sooty Mold

If you find a hard, black mass surrounding cherry twigs, it is known as Black Knot Fungus. Some years it is more common than others. Another black mass that looks similar but found on American Beech twigs is Black Sooty Mold. This is a mold that grows on the “honey dew” of scale insects and remains visible through out the winter and into the next spring or summer. It does not harm the tree.

Now that winter is here, get out and see what you can find. Look things up to identify them and learn about the world in winter around you. Next time I will share some plants in winter.

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Fire Recovery Video

As a companion to yesterday’s posting on the recovery of the Duck Lake fire, here is a short video showing what much of the fire zone looks like today. This 60 second video is a compilation of clips from a roughly 20-minute ride out from the Swamp Lakes to County Road 414. Check it out at https://youtu.be/mUkY5tT6HWk

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Duck Lake Fire – Five Years Later

Former Pine Area

Often forest or wild fires are looked at as destructive and devastating events. We like to think the best thing is to suppress them, when in reality this leads to the buildup of a huge fuel load making the fires more intense when they do occur. The after math is said to be ugly and dead, when all we see is the charred remnant of the once thriving landscape. I would rather like to suggest that this burning or utter “devastation” of the forest is rather a time and process of renewal and regeneration. In the case of northern Michigan forest, Aspen trees sprout in mass providing food and/or cover for deer and grouse. Jack Pine cones open from the heat of the fire, releasing seeds from the resinous cones that have held them captive for years. The result is a super abundance of young Jack Pine trees that within a few years will host Kirkland Warblers. All of this regeneration is currently playing out in this fire area from five years ago. Possibly within a couple of years the warblers will come.

Deciduous Trees

In the vast acreage that has looked so barren, new life has returned. In the dryer upland areas that were Jack and Red Pine stands before the fire, ground layer plants such as Bracken Fern, Wild Blueberry, Bearberry and Sweet Fern have returned. Blueberries have not just returned but have dominated some areas, even this late in the season I was able to find enough for three days’ worth of pancakes for breakfast. Mosses have also dominated some soil types and situations with large matts of lush green moss. Winter Green and Trailing Arbutus continue to flourish, but most noticeable are the young pine trees. In areas where one side of the road burned and the other side did not and trees remained alive in the burned area, the main difference is the lack of lower mid-level green and vegetation. Lower limbs may have died but not the tops of the trees. In areas with more deciduous trees, seedlings and suckering shots abound of White Birch, Red Maple, oaks and aspens. Along the road and trail cuts flowers have returned. Although there are still many dead pines still standing, they are beginning to fall.

Logged Area

Some areas have been or are currently being logged, giving a more barren look. The burned open or more open areas have higher numbers of pine seedlings. In some cases, the stands are very thick, almost sod like.

Swamp Lakes

The wetlands that were dry at the time of the fire have refilled to over flowing in some cases. Other than the few dead trees in the wetlands, you would not know that there were ever burned and blackened just five years ago. Sweet Gale, Leather Leaf and other shrubs have grown back, none the worse for the wear. At a boggish lake in the Swamp Lakes complex, what was a sea of blackened sticks is now a thriving sea of green with the shrubs, sedges, mosses and other plants that have regrown. Pitcher Plant, sundews, sphagnum mosses, violets, sedges, rushes and many others now once again are thriving. These wetlands are as healthy as ever.

Jack Pine

Yes, it will take time for the older trees to be replace, but this entire area is well on its way to fully recovering with a new vigor. Again, what we tend to see as total devastation and loss, is really an avenue to regeneration and setting back the clock of succession.

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