The Deep Damp Woods

After being stuck inside for a couple cold, rainy days, I was growing restless; methodically peering out my favorite windows, desperately scanning for any excuse to venture out. The forecast was promising rain for a few more days. Staring out of glass portals into the natural world, I watched the goldfinch, tufted titmice, chickadees and nuthatches slowly work on emptying my bird feeders. Mourning doves and robins surveyed the driveway, pacing along the gravel edges searching for the early worm. Spots of color dotted the wet lawn: red, yellow, white and brown mushrooms on full display, taking advantage of the moist environments to release their spores. Occasionally, the sun is able to throw some rays through the rain clouds, turning all water droplets into sparkling prisms shining green and gold. The towering white pine tree is adorned with thousands of brilliant gems like glowing pendants dangling at the tips of its needles. I find a raincoat and my mud boots, so I make up my mind to venture out. Pulling on my rubber mud boots, I assure my dog Charlie I’ll bring him with me next time when it’s not so muddy in the woods. You’ve never seen an old dog with such sad, puppy eyes as he watches me leave.

I always begin my walk by tracing along the edges of mowed lawn, looking for mushrooms, new flowers, birds and small animals. The fresh rain has pushed up large, yellow, velvet foot mushrooms that cluster in the wet grass and on rotting logs in the forest edge. A long, thin white cultivar of velvet foot; Enoki, is famously utilized in East Asian cuisine. As with all wild mushrooms, eating the wild form of the mushroom should be done with extreme caution as there are poisonous look-alikes. Velvet foot mushroom was also used as part of an experiment on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993. Cultures were grown in low-gravity to observe how the fungus orients its growth form. In normal gravity conditions, most mushrooms bend their stems near the base to align the cap pointing up, allowing the spores to fall easily from the gills.However, in the low-gravity environment of the space shuttle, the mushrooms grew at many odd angles, seemingly confused about which way was up. Continuing on my walk I pass red and yellow Amanita mushrooms and giant puffballs the size of basketballs. A walk in the rain allows me a glimpse of these colorful fungi before the next cold night turns them into slimy brown piles of goo.

At the top of a small hill in the forest, I am granted an engaging perspective. Elevated up a few feet, my eyeline sits just above the tops of shrubs and small trees which comprise the forest understory on my property. From this viewpoint, I am able to observe the vertical layering of habitats within the forest canopy. The forest floor displays a range of colorful mushrooms, stealthy salamanders, wood frogs and bright red jack-in-the-pulpit berries all thriving in the shady underworld of wet leaves and rotting stumps. Just above this low-lying world are the shrubs and small trees like spicebush, highbush cranberry and witch hazel. Game birds like bobwhites and ruffed grouse feed on spicebush berries, and grouse use fallen trees as “drumming logs” in their mating ritual. Spicebush swallowtail butterflies glide between branches, the males releasing pheromones while performing elaborate courtship displays to attract a mate. I snap off a few spicebush twigs and stuff them in my pocket to enjoy a cup of spicebush tea while drying off later. Overhead, the oak, maple, black cherry and poplar trees tower overhead, reaching skyward. Virginia creeper is not far behind, crawling up the trees and turning a fiery red in autumn. Crows are making a racket in the top of a white pine tree, likely harassing a raptor. Migrating warblers and other small birds flit between the treetops in the canopy, only discernible with a pair of binoculars or a trained ear. These birds don’t frequent bird feeders, so a walk outside is the best way to catch a glimpse. Walking with my neck craned upward is not smart, but when I trip over a tree root I’m reminded of the hidden ecosystem layer beneath my feet. In the soil amid the interwoven network of tree roots, mycelium threads from fungus stretch across the landscape; the massive, hidden, vegetative body of the small colorful mushrooms we see up above. Bugs, worms, tunneling mammals, reptiles and amphibians find food and shelter in the soil.

On my way back to the house, I am met with a cold wind as I leave the protection of the woods. With winter approaching, these forest layers are about to change but they will still be visible. The forest floor will become covered in a blanket of snow decorated with tracks of rabbits, foxes, and raccoons still wandering the white woods. Under the snow, a maze of tunnels formed by mice and voles offer hidden highways across the landscape. Above, small trees and shrubs comprising the understory layer will lose their leaves but many will still hold colorful berries, a valuable food source for birds like the cedar waxwing. In the bare branches of the canopy, hawks and owls will sit on perches searching for prey.

Standing still and quiet in the forest allows one a chance to appreciate the density and layers of life within. Plants and animals specialized to thrive in their own place in the ecosystem are layered harmoniously, depending on each other. Next time you find yourself with a heightened perspective in the woods, take a moment to look around. Studying a rich, forest ecosystem tends to illuminate an understanding of our own place in the environment.

Opossum

Do you say possum or opossum? The fact is, in Michigan, we have the North American
Opossum ( Didelphis virginiana) , also known as the Virginia Opossum. We do not have possum. Possum refers to a group of about 70 small to medium sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi. However, many people use the common name possum to refer to opossum. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I chose to write this article. Opossum are one of our most common yet least understood mammals. In addition to being called by the wrong name, some people see opossum as an ugly, scary pest with a menacing grin full of teeth. Like most animals, the more we learn about them, the less scary they become. Setting aside our prejudices, we are able to appreciate this beneficial and interesting critter strolling through our yards in the moonlight.

The opossum is North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are born incompletely developed
and are carried and suckled in a pouch on their mother's belly. In some cases, 20 to 50
opossum have been born in a single litter, but as the mother only has 13 teats, any additional
offspring may not survive due to lack of nutrition. An average litter will yield eight or nine
offspring. Baby opossum, called “joeys”, reside in their mother’s pouch for the first
two-and-a-half months before climbing onto her back. After about four or five months the joeys will leave the mother.

Some people find opossum cute, while others find them to be hideous. Famous for their startling grin of 50 teeth, the opossum have more teeth than any other land mammal in North America. They may have a mouthful of teeth, but opossum do not have much of a brain. Surprisingly small for the animal’s size, the brain of an opossum is about one-fifth the size of a raccoon's brain. The lifespan for opossum is very short, lasting only about two years in the wild. Even in captivity, opossum only live about four years on average. Living outside their native range, the opossum’s wiry body hair and hairless tails are not sufficient adaptations to survive our frigid climate in northern Michigan.

Ever since European settlers began clearing dense forests in the region, the range for opossum
has been expanding northward at a significant pace. Oceana County is north of the native range of opossum. The pre-European settlement range extended as far north as southern Ohio,
Indiana, and Illinois. Since 1900, reports exist of opossum thriving throughout Michigan.
However, living outside of their native range does present some challenges. Michigan winters
are harsh for the opossum, and it is not uncommon for them to lose parts of their ears or tails to frostbite. Their thin, wiry hair is not sufficient insulation against our frigid winter temperatures.

Cursed with a reputation as chicken killers and garbage raiders, the opossum has a surprisingly
diverse diet. Opossum are omnivores, eating a mixture of plants and animals such as fruits,
grains, insects, snails, slugs, eggs, mice, rats, fish, frogs, snakes and carrion. Acting as
groundskeepers, opossum consume many undesirable pests. A single opossum can consume
as many as 4,000 ticks per week, significantly reducing the threat of lyme disease. They also
are known to eat cockroaches, rats, and mice. Opossum are mostly immune to rabies and are
resistant to snake venom allowing them to prey on snakes. Although they have been found
invading trash cans, or raiding chicken coops, the presence of opossum can be more of a
benefit than a burdon. Securing trash cans and eliminating entry points into chicken coops will
limit their negative impacts.

When frightened or harmed, opossum suddenly freeze and lie still as if dead. They have no control over this response, which could be said to paralyze them with fear or have evolved
because almost any predator can outrun them. If left unharmed, a catatonic opossum will
recover in roughly one to four hours. When confronted, opossum may display their teeth
and even hiss. However, rather than fighting, this shy and inoffensive adversary utilizes a
survival strategy of entering a state of apparent death. The opossum’s lips draw back, teeth
bared and saliva foams around the mouth. Eyes are half-closed and a foul smelling secretion is
emitted from the anal glands. An opossum in this state can be prodded and even carried without awakening, but we strongly recommend respectfully leaving them alone.

Orphaned opossum are sometimes taken as pets despite being illegal to keep them without a
wildlife rehabilitation permit. These are wild animals with a short lifespan and they can become
sick from the stress of captivity. Professionals at zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers are
trained to properly care for wild animals. Opossum at these facilities can be used as educational animals to teach adults and children about wildlife rehabilitation and conservation. Learning about our local marsupial allows us to understand the role of opossum in the ecosystem, and convinces us to dispel any feelings of disgust or contempt for these surprisingly beneficial creatures.

Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers

At the end of a long, cold winter many of us are eagerly waiting for the first signs of spring. When the last of the snow melts away, the earliest wildflowers begin to appear in March and April. The earliest group of wildflowers to emerge in our forests are referred to as spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means “lasting for a very short time.” Before the trees leaf out, an abundance of sunlight is able to reach the forest floor, warming the soil and encouraging the first wildflowers to push through the leaf litter. These plants emerge, bloom, set seed, then die back and enter dormancy before the canopy leafs out and blocks the sunlight. Frequent walks in the woods are necessary if you hope to catch a glimpse of these fleeting displays of spring. Resist the urge to pick the alluring flowers; they are often sensitive to disturbance and some have laws protecting them. Below is a list of some of our most common spring ephemeral wildflowers. Keep an eye out for them this spring; tread lightly, take only photos and leave only footprints.


Bloodroot
(Sanguinaria canadensis)
Emerging from an underground reddish rhizome, bloodroot typically grows less than a foot tall, the single large basal leaf clasping the flower stem. Commonly found in moist to dry woods and thickets, on flood plains, and near shores or streams. This wildflower blooms in early April, before the foliage unfolds. A single, white flower with 8-12 delicate petals, yellow stamens, and two sepals. The flowers produce pollen but no nectar. Colonies are formed through underground spreading rhizomes containing reddish-orange toxic sap, the reason for the common name. Bloodroot produces toxic alkaloids, primarily sanguinarine, which are stored in the rhizome. Sanguinarine kills animal cells. Contact with skin may destroy tissue and result in a scab. Ingestion can lead to vomiting and loss of consciousness. Small bees and flies act as pollinators. Native Americans used bloodroot as a medicine and as a dye for fabric.


Eastern White Trillium
(Trillium grandiflorum)
As the name implies, the plant’s growth form is based in threes. Trilliums have three leaf-like bracts whorled around a stem, producing a single flower with three sepals, three petals, and six stamens in the center with three stigmas. There are 39 varieties of native trilliums in the United States. The most common trillium in Michigan is the eastern white trillium, occurring in every county. Large, white, odorless flowers grow pinker as they age. Honey bees, bumblebees and wasps act as pollinators. Trillium are a long lived (25 years) yet very delicate plant and can be killed unintentionally by picking the flowers. Some species of trillium are listed as threatened or endangered and collecting these species is illegal in Michigan. High deer population density decreases or eliminates trillium in an area. The pinkish late flowers are sometimes confused with the related red trillium (Trillium erectum) which is rare and displays deep red flowers that have no nectar and exude an odor of rotting meat to attract flies and beetles as pollinators.


trout lily.jpg

Yellow Trout Lily
(Erythronium americanum)
Other common names include yellow dogtooth violet and Adder's tongue. The name “trout lily” refers to the appearance of its green leaves mottled with brown or gray, resembling brook trout. Often only the leaves will be present as the trout lily does not flower for the first 4-7 years of its life. Young plants will only grow one leaf until it has reached maturity and will then grow two leaves with a single yellow, stalked, nodding flower. Trout lilies grow in colonies that may be up to 300 years old. White trout lily (Erythronium albidum) occurs in the southern lower peninsula and along the Ontonagon River.


Skunk Cabbage
(Symplocarpus foetidus)
Look for this peculiar plant in wetlands when snow is still prevalent. A thermogenic plant, skunk cabbage is able to produce its own heat through cellular respiration. The plant can be found poking through circles of melted snow. Flowers emerge in very early spring, a 4-6” mottled purple spathe with a spadix inside. Large green leaves emerge later. When bruised, the plant exudes a strong fetid odor resembling decaying flesh to lure insects for pollination. Native Americans used skunk cabbage as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman. The roots and leaves are toxic raw, but the leaves may be dried and used in soups and stews.


Spring beauty
(Claytonia virginica)
This small, low-growing wildflower rarely reaches 1 foot in height and produces a single pair of slender leaves. The pale pink flowers are accentuated by darker pink veins consisting of five petals and have a pleasant floral fragrance. Blooming lasts a mere three days and the anther is only active for one day. Spring beauties are noted for their abundance in forests, lawns, parks, roadsides, and wetlands. The Iroquois would give a cold infusion of the powdered roots to children suffering from convulsions. Many Native Americans cooked the root like a potato. The entire plant is considered safe for human consumption and is rich in nutrients like potassium, calcium and vitamins A and C.


Harbinger of Spring
(Erigenia bulbosa)
A member of the carrot family, this wildflower reaches 6” tall on average and produces flowers with white petals and large, dark-reddish anthers. The five teardrop petals are widely spaced, not touching each other. Another common name is pepper-and-salt plant, referring to the black anthers and the bright white petals. This wildflower is one of the earliest to emerge in rich hardwood forests in spring. Pollination is performed by solitary bees, flies, and honey bees. The Cherokee were known to chew this plant to treat toothaches, and the bulb may be eaten cooked or raw.


Two-leaved toothwort (C. diphylla)

Cutleaf toothwort (C. concatenata)

Toothwort
(Cardamine)
The two species of toothwort in Michigan are two-leaved toothwort (C. diphylla) and cutleaf toothwort (C. concatenata). Two-leaved toothwort has large, broad leaves and occupies moist cedar swamps while cutleaf toothwort has slender leaves and prefers rich beech-maple forests. A smooth, unbranched plant up to 1 foot tall, both species display white to pinkish flowers and have four petals held above the foliage in a spike. Emerging foliage may be purple initially, turning green in time. Toothwort is a host plant for the West Virginia white butterfly; however, the invasive species garlic mustard is threatening the survival of the butterfly. The butterfly confuses the similar looking flowers; if they lay their eggs on the invasive plant the offspring will die. Native Americans used the plant for a vinegar-based relish and medicinally to treat many illnesses.


Wood Anemone
(Anemone quinquefolia)
Other common names include: windflower, thimbleweed, and smell fox, an allusion to the musky smell of the leaves. The foliage reaches an average height of 6” with flowers held above on short stems. The solitary flowers are usually white, but may be pink, lilac or blue. Hoverflies are a primary pollinator. In woodland conditions they can carpet large areas quickly as the rhizomes spread just below the soil surface. The slender stems allow the plant to tremble in the wind, earning the common name windflower. Although Native Americans utilized the plant as medicine, wood anemone is considered toxic to animals and humans, causing severe skin and gastrointestinal irritation.


Dutchman’s Breeches
(Dicentra cucullaria)
Out of a mass of fern-like leaves emerge stalks of 3 to 14 white or pinkish unscented flowers. The flowers resemble a pair of breeches hanging upside down, hence the common name Dutchman’s Breeches. The unique flower shape is adapted for pollination by bumblebees as they are able to separate the outer and inner petals of the flower to access the pollen. The flowers wilt almost immediately upon picking, so they should not be picked in the wild. Native Americans utilized the plant as a medicine to treat syphilis, skin conditions, and as a blood purifier. However, this plant may be toxic and causes dermatitis in some people. A similar and closely related wildflower, Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) has fragrant, heart-shaped flowers.


Squirrel Corn
(Dicentra canadensis)
The delicate blue-green foliage of this wildflower typically grows up to 1 foot tall and often blankets the forest floor in dense colonies. The foliage is almost identical to dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), the most distinguishable difference being the flower. Squirrel corn blooms a week or so later than dutchman’s breeches, and the flowers are heart-shaped, creamy white to pale lavender in color and have a slight fragrance. There is no yellow waistband on squirrel corn’s flowers. Pollination is highly specialized with the unique flower shape; only the bumble bee is equipped with a tongue long enough to reach the deep recesses of the flower. The common name refers to the nodule-like yellow tubers clustered along the rootstock that resemble corn kernels. Mice and chipmunk commonly transplant the tubers. All parts of the plant are toxic in large quantities and deer do not like to graze on them. The Menominee Indians valued the wildflower as a love charm, a young man would throw the flowers to his intended love or chew the roots giving a perfumed smell in the face of the woman. The Onondaga called this plant the “Ghost Corn” believing it was “food for the spirits.”


COOL FACT!
Many of our spring flowering plants have evolved mutualistically with ants in an interesting seed dispersal relationship called myrmecochory. Seeds of these plants have an extra appendage on their seed called an elaiosome. The ants transport the elaiosomes, which are rich in lipids and proteins, to their dens and dispose of the seeds in underground nest waste disposal areas, the optimal environment for germination and protection from seed predation. Bloodroot, trillium, trout lily, spring beauty, dutchman’s breeches, and squirrel corn all utilize this fascinating adaptation.

Winter is Coming!

I wrote this article in early December, before the blizzards. A more appropriate title could be Winter is Here!

What is it about an icy cold morning that makes me want to walk outside? I think it’s an
opportunity to see the world in a raw, vulnerable state. The white, crystal frost forming through
the clear night, encrusting everything in diamonds, waiting for the sun to gradually melt it away. Everything feels frozen in place. The warmth of the rising sun looming over the eastern horizon, its first rays glittering the tops of the trees. My warm breath and hot coffee form clouds in the crisp air. Sitting still lets the cold in, so I walk, my feet crunching the frozen grass and leaves, the cold air biting my face. There is harmony here, the warm sun on my back supplies me with energy to keep walking, it shines on the trees melting the frost and awakening life. The early-morning bird calls do not need a snooze button, their sunrise songs are a welcome respite from obnoxious morning radio shows and anxiety-ridden news reports.

Some years the warmth of summer reaches far into autumn, and other years the bitter chill of
winter sends us searching for ice scrapers in October. My mind drifts to a growing list of chores I need to complete before winter arrives. The cold compels us to store food, gather firewood, and throw heavy blankets on the beds. This intuition is shared with other creatures in the fields and forests around us as they follow their own ways of adapting to the changing conditions.

As the northern winds begin to blow, daylight hours shorten, and resources become scarce, life
must adapt to survive. Animals that migrate aren't escaping the cold as much as following the
availability of food. Birds are masters of migration, some traveling pole to pole across the planet every season. The shortening of daylight hours signals birds to begin their journey. Without the use of smartphones or GPS units, navigation is achieved by following celestial cues from the sun and stars, the Earth’s magnetic field, and mental maps. The arctic tern takes part in one of the longest distance migrations on record, flying over 25,000 miles from breeding grounds in the Arctic to wintering grounds in the Antarctic. The ruby-throated hummingbird migrates south each year to Mexico and Panama. Monarch butterflies have a multigenerational migration; no single monarch completing the entire journey. It takes at least four generations to complete the monarch’s migration. It is truly amazing that animals so small can navigate so far.

For those who forgo migration and stay behind to face the cold, hibernation offers a way to
survive in the face of diminishing resources. Some animals that hibernate in Oceana County
include bears, woodchucks, bats, snakes, turtles and frogs, and bees. Hibernation typically
involves a decrease in body temperature, slowing of heart rate and breathing, and a drop in
metabolic rate. There is a surprising amount of disagreement about what animals should be
considered “true hibernators”. Some animals, like bears and skunks, were not considered “true
hibernators” until recently as scientists have begun to interpret hibernation based on active
metabolic suppression rather than body temperature decline. Deeply hibernating animals, like
woodchucks, become very difficult to wake and may even appear dead. During hibernation, the heart rate of a woodchuck slows from 80 beats per minute down to 4, and its temperature drops from 98 to as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit. If its temperature falls too low, the woodchuck may wake up slightly to shiver for warmth. In preparation for hibernation, animals need to find or create a safe place to sleep for a few months. For terrestrial mammals this could be in the form of a cave, a hollow tree or a den dug into the ground. Black bears enter their dens in October or November and rarely use the same dens twice. During hibernation, animals live off of stored fat built up during the summer and fall months. This is especially important for female bears as they will give birth in their dens during hibernation, nursing their cubs without eating anything themselves. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians undergo brumation , which is similar to hibernation but differs in that animals may display punctuated activity to ingest water. Aquatic frogs and turtles hibernate or brumate on or under the muddy bottom of ponds, subsisting on the oxygen-rich water and mud. Frogs and toads may enter a semi frozen state and survive by synthesizing an antifreeze chemical in their body. Terrestrial wood frogs and spring peepers enter dormancy on land, preferring to occupy the cracks and crevices of rocks and logs. In these more exposed locations, the amphibian may actually freeze, its breathing and heart may stop and resume function upon thawing. Hard shell turtles, like snapping turtles, are able to brumate in the oxygen-depleted water on the bottom of a stagnant pond. In a low oxygen environment, the turtle burns body fats and sugars which creates lactic acid as a waste product. One theory hypothesizes that calcium and carbonates in the turtle’s shell help to neutralize the harmful lactic acid.

Many animals brave the cold, stay active through the winter, and have adapted in very
interesting ways. As the leaves fall, green turns to brown, and snow covers the landscape in
white, some animals may find their camouflage no longer appropriate for their surroundings.
The coats of snowshoe hare and weasels will grow thicker for warmth and change color from
brown to white for camouflage against the white snow. The shifting environment can affect
predator-prey relationships as well. Field mice will create tunnels under the snow that serve as
highways across the winter landscape hidden from predators like owls and hawks. Food can be
a scarce resource for many in winter and adaptations must be made. While the summer diet of
foxes includes large amounts of berries and fruit, in winter they consume a greater amount of
rodents to offset the lack of vegetation. Rabbits and deer adjust their diets too, consuming
greater amounts of moss, twigs, and bark. Squirrels, mice, and beavers plan ahead by
gathering extra food in the fall to stockpile rations for later. Insects have their own unique
adaptations. While the majority of insects migrate, hibernate, or die in winter, some insects like
snow fleas and the winter stonefly remain active. Snow fleas are so adapted to winter
conditions, some will die if held in a warm hand. To cope with freezing conditions, insects are
able to prevent or control freezing in their bodies. Much like amphibians, insects are able to
control the formation of ice in a way that protects their cells from damage through the production of natural antifreeze compounds like glycerin. Proteins and compounds bind to ice crystals to prevent their growth.

Winter is coming. Chilly mornings and frosted windshields foreshadow the impending freeze.
While we put plastic on our windows and line our driveways with snow plow stakes, keep in
mind the preparations occurring in the fields and forests around us.

Cerulean Warbler

Over the course of my two years working in Oceana County, my interest in birding has been
quickly increasing. Two of my coworkers are experienced birders and their knowledge and
enthusiasm about birds is very contagious. Many mornings they’ll arrive with exciting news of
rare birds they spotted. This always inspires me to research birds I was previously unaware of.
The Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea) is just one of these interesting and fairly uncommon birds that seasonally resides in Oceana County. This small, blue warbler is considered a threatened species, indicating it is facing a risk of becoming endangered. However, here in Oceana County, a thriving population can be found along the White River. Due to this, the White River has been designated as an Important Bird Area for this species by the National Audubon Society and Birdlife International.


The Cerulean Warbler is a small bird typically seen in the upper canopy of mature deciduous
eastern forests especially in river valleys. It is named for the color cerulean which is roughly
between azure and sky blue, although cerulean is dimmer. Like most warblers, the Cerulean
Warbler is sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females have very different coloring. The
male Cerulean Warblers are bright blue above and white below. They have black streaks on
their sides and back, two white wing bars and a black line, or “necklace”, across their front.
Females and immature birds have grey or greenish upper parts, a pale stripe over the eye, no
streaking on the back and no necklace. Bird guides describe their call as buzzy notes on the
same pitch followed by a longer note on a higher pitch: zray zray z-z-z-zzeeeee.


During their breeding season, the Cerulean Warbler’s range extends through eastern and
central United States and southern parts of Canada, with Oceana County positioned along the
northern edge of their breeding range. During their migration in the fall, the warbler passes
through the southern United States flying over the Gulf of Mexico to the highlands of South
America. They overwinter in forests within a narrow band of middle elevations in the Andes
Mountains of Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela.


The Cerulean Warbler is listed as a threatened species by Michigan State University’s Michigan
Natural Features Inventory and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers the warbler a species
of special concern. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates a decline of over 2.6%
per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative loss of 74% of the population in that
time. A large part of this decline is due to parasitism by the cowbird (Molothrus ater) and this
interaction is intensified by habitat fragmentation. The cowbird is considered a parasite of many small birds because the cowbird will lay its eggs in nests of other birds. The cowbird chick hatches before the host bird hatchlings and will either push the other eggs out of the nest or will outcompete them for food.


Cowbirds tend to stay mostly at the edges of forests, but with forest habitats becoming divided and fragmented, there is less and less contiguous forestland available for the warblers to nest in. Conservation groups have made efforts to find cowbird eggs in host nests and remove them before they hatch. This has had a powerful positive impact on the resilience of the species. We do not recommend the everyday nature lover to undertake this action themselves as misidentification of eggs is a risk that could do more damage than good. If you are interested in getting involved with conservation efforts to help protect warblers and other birds, contact your local conservation district office or local Audubon Society chapter to join a group of experienced conservationists.


There are opportunities to see many of the species of birds that migrate through and breed in
Oceana County (including the beautiful Cerulean Warbler) by attending one of Oceana
Conservation District’s field trips. Contact our office at 231-861-5600 or visit
oceanaconservation.org for information on upcoming birding events.


In 2015, the Oceana Conservation District initiated an effort to document the birds of Oceana
County with the intent of publishing a birding guide for local residents and visiting birders that
features birds of Oceana County and local birding hot spots. A project committee was formed to begin planning and compiling information for the publication. The project committee spent two years conducting bird surveys to provide additional records and to identify birding hot spots described in the book.


The purpose of A Birding Guide to Oceana County is to promote birding in Oceana County.
Compared to other Michigan counties that border Lake Michigan, Oceana County is very
under-birded. This publication is the first attempt to compile bird data for Oceana County and is meant to serve as a baseline document. The authors encourage all birders to help fill in gaps in the birding data by entering their sightings on eBird (ebird.org) or reporting their bird sightings to the Oceana Conservation District. A Birding Guide to Oceana County is now available and can be purchased at the Oceana Conservation District office at 1064 Industrial Park Drive, Shelby, MI 49455.

Indian Pipes: The Preferred Flower of Life

Why are most plants green? Because they contain chlorophyll pigments, which are used to absorb energy from sunlight. Many of us have learned about photosynthesis, the process plants use to synthesize foods from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. This dependence on sunlight is what drives plants to grow upward and trees to reach over one another, fighting for the best spot in the sun. But in the dark, shaded understory of the forest, not much sunlight reaches the forest floor. Some of the plants that live in these darkened locations have found a way to obtain energy without sunlight. In Michigan forests, we have a haunting example of these adaptations found in Monotropa uniflora. The abnormal white color of this plant and the fact that it is usually found in the darkest corners of a forest understory, have led people to nickname the plant ghost plant, corpse plant, or Indian pipes.

Mostly white with specks of black, this forest oddity produces a single, nodding, bell-shaped
flower head atop a scaly stem. Indian pipes are actually a relative of the common blueberry, which has a similarly shaped bloom. The plant occasionally develops a pink coloration as the season progresses, and rare varieties even have a deep red color. If searching for this elusive specimen, look in the understory of dark woods often around beech trees. Indian pipes require moist, thick leaf cover typically found in mature forests. Most of the year, this plant is unseen, living underground and only appearing to bloom for a couple months in the summer. Without the need for sunlight, the only reason Indian pipes poke their heads above the soil is to be pollinated by long-tongued bees. Once pollinated, the flowers heads turn upright, forming a seed capsule. The seeds are then distributed through the forest by wind.

Beyond its ghostly appearance, what makes Indian pipes so interesting is that these plants do not
seek an energy source from above, but rather from below the ground. Without a strong source of
sunlight on the forest floor, chlorophyll and photosynthesis are ineffective. Instead, this plant
adapted a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi found on tree roots. The fungi is
already in symbiosis with the tree roots, acting like a “middleman” connecting the photosynthesizing tree with the Indian pipes. Scientists believe this relationship does not cause harm to the tree. This unique adaptation to obtain energy without harvesting solar energy is uncommon, but Indian pipes are one of about 3,000 non-photosynthetic plants in the world.

As with all wildflowers, we do not recommend picking Indian pipes. Not only will the flower quickly wilt and turn black, but native wildflowers should be preserved as part of the ecosystem and to spark the interest of the next passerby. That said, make sure to bring your camera to take pictures of this photogenic ghost plant.

Indian pipes are said to be the favorite flower of American poet Emily Dickinson, and the flower
was even featured on the cover of her first published book of poetry. She makes frequent reference to the whiteness of the flowers in her writings. Dickinson’s friend and editor Mabel Todd once painted a picture of Indian pipes for Emily, and she responded, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none.”

Jack-In-The-Pulpit

With the long days of summer now upon us, the daytime temperatures have warmed up giving way to early summer wildflowers like foxglove beardtongue and black-eyed susan. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a very unique looking plant in the shady, wet areas of my woods. At first glance, I incorrectly thought I was looking at the carnivorous, insect-eating pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Upon closer inspection I noticed the small, spike-like inflorescence hidden inside the hooded bract. I also noticed the bizarre purple and green stripes along the bracts but not on the three green leaves making up the rest of the plant.  A quick skim through a wildflower identification guide informed me that I was looking at jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

 

Looking like a tropical or alien plant, jack-in-the-pulpit is actually native to Michigan and the rest of Eastern North America. Preferring moist, deciduous forests, its range extends from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico and westward to Minnesota and Louisiana. The plant prefers moderately wet, humus-rich sites with partial shade. In winter, a covering of leaf-litter offers needed protection from the harsh winter winds and temperatures. This woodland plant often appears as a singular plant with three leaflets growing on top of one or two long stems. Emerging from its own stalk, the flower is typically 3 to 4 inches tall, about 1 to 2 inches wide and includes a 2 to 3 inch club (the “jack” or spadix) in a tubular structure with a hood (the “pulpit” or spathe). The plant flowers in June or July and is pollinated by flies attracted to the mushroom-like scent. In July to August, after flowering and only if pollinated by a separate plant, jack-in-the-pulpit may produce smooth, shiny, green fruit as a cluster of berries which will ripen into a bright red color before the plant goes dormant. The berries are consumed by birds and some mammals, but is toxic to humans, cats, dogs, and horses.

 

POISONOUS! - Consumed raw, this plant can be poisonous to humans and pets. However, if cooked and prepared properly, the root and spadix can be eaten like a vegetable. The plant contains needle-like calcium oxalate crystals that break down when cooked, therefore it should never be consumed raw and gloves should be worn while handling the plant. Eating jack-in-the-pulpit raw gives a peppery taste and may result in a burning sensation in the mouth and throat. In some cases, swelling can occur and restrict breathing. The plant may be confused with poison ivy which also has three leaves, but the venation in jack-in-the-pulpit is much more pronounced. The Meskwaki Indians of the Great Lakes region are told to have used the plant to poison their enemies by inserting the raw plant parts into meat and then leaving it for enemies to find and consume. This would result in severe sickness, pain, and even death.

 

Another intriguing aspect of this plant is that it is considered a protandrous hermaphrodite. Hermaphroditic plants possess both male and female reproductive parts. In protandrous plants the male reproductive parts mature before the female. While still a young plant, jack-in-the-pulpit produces only male flowers. As the seasons pass, and only if there are sufficient nutrients available, the plant may then begin producing female flowers. If conditions change and become less favorable, the plant is able to change back to male and preserve its energy. Expressing one gender at a time makes self-pollination impossible for jack-in-the-pulpit and requires pollination from a plant that is expressing the other gender. This beneficial adaptation preserves genetic diversity and the health of the species by supporting cross-pollination and encouraging reproduction only in favorable sites.

 

Many poems and works of art have been inspired by this curious woodland plant. One poem in particular, by John Greenleaf Whittier, personifies jack-in-the-pulpit and other wildflowers in a 19th century instructional coloring book. The full poem and coloring book can be found in the Library of Congress online archive at https://catalog.loc.gov. I’ll conclude this month’s article with an excerpt from Whittier’s poem “Jack In The Pulpit” originally published in 1885:

 

 

Under the green trees

Just over the way,

Jack in the pulpit

Preaches today.

 

Squirrel and song sparrow

High on their perch

Hear the sweet lilybells

Ringing to church.

 

Come hear what his reverend

Rises to say

In his queer little pulpit

This fine Sabbath day.

 

Fair is the canopy

Over him seen,

Painted by nature’s hand

Black, brown, and green.

 

Green is his pulpit,

Green are his bands,

In his queer little pulpit

The little priest stands.

 

-J.G. Whittier (1807-1892)

 

Northern Spring Peepers

Spring is here! And with it comes warmer days and greater opportunities for viewing wildlife. Mother Nature is ringing in spring, pushing up wildflowers and bulbs and breaking open forsythia blooms. The rejuvenating sunshine is warming the soil and April showers bathed the landscape promising May flowers. Migratory birds are returning and the songs of robins and bluebirds are music to our ears. In the low areas, the soil is wet enough you need to wear muck boots which make the most inappropriate sounds as you tug them from the suction of the sludge. Perhaps that is Mother Nature herself challenging you to be still, look, listen, and spare a moment to take it all in. In a thriving wetland ecosystem, life abounds and it is too easy to miss the beautiful details if we don’t slow down to “stop and smell the roses.” Not all signs of spring are as obvious as a vibrant bed of tulips; some require a closer look, a listening ear and a slower pace. Emerging from underground overwintering sites or leaf litter, the Northern spring peeper is very small and often overlooked, yet remains a traditional harbinger of the sounds of spring.

When night falls, creatures like the spring peeper begin audibly signalling the changing of the season. This small chorus frog is one of the first amphibians to emerge in spring, often when the nighttime temperatures reach 50 degrees. Take a close listen near any wetland area and chances are you’ll hear them. Individual peepers sound like a chicken peeping or chirping. When en masse, the peepers can be almost deafening, sounding like distant sleigh bells. On a rainy, warm evening, pull on your wet boots and a raincoat to enter the amphibian world and you may be lucky enough to be awarded a quick glimpse of this tiny frog.

The Northern spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) receives its scientific name “crucifer” meaning “cross-bearer” due to the cross shape or X marking on its back. This is also the easiest way to identify them. The spring peeper is a small chorus frog typically the size of your thumb and weighing less than a nickel at maturity. Their coloring can range from brown to gray or olive and may be yellow or reddish. This coloring allows them to blend in with tree bark and dead leaves. The frog has large toe pads to aid in climbing, although the frog is more often found in the leaves and debris on the forest floor than high up in the tree canopy.

Spring peepers are usually found in wet, regenerating forest lands, flooded roadside ditches and in the wet grass of swales surrounding lakes and bogs. Areas with permanent or temporary water nearby are required for their breeding habitat. A study from 1951 in Washtenaw County found spring peepers to be the most abundant animal in the months of March, April, and May. Today, they can still be found in very high numbers in areas with suitable habitat. Though easy to see and hear in the spring, spotting these frogs becomes much more difficult in the summer months as their breeding cycle ends and growing vegetation offers shelter and privacy. Adequate shelter is crucial to the survival of spring peepers for providing protection from dangerous predators.

The diet of spring peepers is based on availability more than preference and consists mainly of arachnids, ants and beetles. Slow, crawling animals are preyed upon more often than active flying insects. A study from 1963 found Northern spring peepers perched on the upper branches of goldenrod, joe-pye weed, and elderberries eating insects attracted to the flowers. The frogs were feeding on small arthropods, spiders and mites based on the observed gut contents of 25 spring peepers.

In wetland areas, frogs are valued for more than their delightful sounds. Considered an “indicator species”, the presence of frogs is an indicator of good ecological health. Organisms like frogs are very sensitive to pollution and will vacate an area or die off once a threshold of pollutants is reached. Water bugs are another example of an indicator species. Frogs and toads are also valuable for insect control. Every day they can consume double or triple their body weight in pests such as sowbugs, ants, ticks, earwigs and slugs.

Take a night walk around wet areas on your property, shine a flashlight under bushes and along the water line and look for glowing eyes. With a total of 13 frogs and toads to be found in Michigan, it’s not too difficult to identify the species. Similar to birding, many enthusiasts develop a skill for identifying frogs by listening for their calls, often with a group of like-minded naturalists. Many audio recordings of frog calls are available online or from your local library to study and memorize. Take it a step further by acting as a “citizen scientist” and report your frogs and other amphibians on the Michigan Herp Atlas at www.miherpatlas.org . You can also see the compiled results of over 2,000 members across Michigan active in reporting amphibians and reptiles.

May is American Wetlands Month—encouraging us to explore, learn, and appreciate our many beautiful wetlands. Preserving and restoring fragile wetland environments secures the habitat needed for these sensitive amphibians. Pollution is a serious threat to wetland ecosystems, easily running off fields, roads, and lawns into drainage ditches and creeks leading to wetlands and swamps. Many sensitive inhabitants of these regions, like the spring peeper, absorb water through their skin. Water pollutants can therefore carry critical repercussions for the health of the ecosystem. So, as we explore these wetland utopias and marvel over the myriad lifeforms and eco-relationships, keep in mind the delicate balance in place and our role and responsibility in protecting them.

Skunks: The Good, The Bad, and the Stinky

Taking advantage of the warmer temperatures, many are enjoying a morning walk around their property or an evening stroll with the dogs to watch the sunset. In these dimly-lit hours when the sun rests low on the horizon, we are granted the perspective to experience sights, sounds, and smells rarely witnessed during the daytime. Bats flutter overhead against the gray sky devouring thousands of insects, mourning doves coo and owls hoot. But when we breathe in the chill, damp air expecting a breath of fresh air only to get a strong whiff of skunk; we know it’s skunk season.

Mephitis mephitis (Latin for “noxious vapor”) commonly named the striped skunk, is a nocturnal mammal meaning they are primarily active just before sunset and become inactive just prior to sunrise. The first reports of skunks were from the historical accounts of Christopher Columbus. Native Americans were known to keep them as pets, and farmers valued them for their ability to catch rodents and other pests.

By and large, everybody knows a skunk when they smell it. Most wild skunks will only spray when injured or threatened. The paired scent glands contain an overpowering, yellowish musk, which can be discharged in a fluid spray, reaching up to 20 feet. The mist can drift even further, carrying the scent for long distances and easily detected by humans. The musk is an irritant to the senses and has been documented to cause nausea, intense pain and temporary blindness. As an initial warning to potential predators, skunks will face an opponent while arching its back and raising its tail, then stomp on the ground with its legs. If the opponent does not back away, a skunk will bend its hindquarters around while still facing the intruder and spray.

Despite their stinky habits, skunks can be an appreciated visitor as they are especially useful at controlling field mice populations and other rodents around homes and barns. Coyotes, badgers, foxes, minks and weasels are known as strong predators of noxious rodents, but the skunk surpasses them all. It has been observed that when skunks are heavily trapped and hunted, local rodent populations increase.

 Farm pests like armyworms and june bugs have been shown to be effectively controlled by skunks. Skunks are valued for control of hop borer grubs as they are the only efficient natural predator of this moth. The skunk will reportedly listen at the base of the hop vine to locate the larvae. In fact, it was mainly through the efforts of hop growers that legislation protecting the striped skunk was first enacted.

The diverse diet of a striped skunk depends on the season and what is available. In the spring and summer months insects compose a large portion of their diet along with frogs, lizards, bird eggs, spiders, snakes, and mice. In the fall and winter months, skunks will consume a variety of fruits, carrion, grasses, leaves, buds, and nuts. Skunks are gluttonous eaters and obesity is often a problem.

The only known predator of the striped skunk is the great horned owl. The great horned owl is believed to have a very weak sense of smell, allowing it to attack skunks despite being sprayed. The nest of a great horned owl may occasionally stink of skunk spray.

Skunks have long been trapped and hunted for their valuable pelts. Skunk fur has been used in the fur industry since the mid 1800’s, increasing in popularity into the early 1900’s and exceeding the production of muskrat as the most traded fur. The early 1940’s saw an increase in the demand for skunk fur resulting in pelts doubling in price. Previous to the 1950’s it was sold under different names including Alaskan Sable and American Sable.

Breeding season for the striped skunk begins mid-February and continues through early April. Adult males are known to travel long distances in search of a mate, some reported to travel up to two miles from their dens. During this period of increased activity, many male skunks are killed while crossing roads and highways. The striped skunk is a slow-moving mammal with inferior vision, but are believed to possess a very acute sense of touch, smell, and hearing.

Highly adaptable to human-dominated landscapes, skunks will feed on bird seed from feeders and raid garbage containers in urban areas. Skunks may also destroy beehives and apiaries, capable of destroying apiaries in two visits. This is easily remedied by placing hives on a tall bench, as skunks are poor climbers.

Skunks aren’t going anywhere. They lived alongside Native Americans even before Columbus sailed. As humans dominate the landscape, skunks have shown their impressive ability to adapt to their surroundings and flourish despite the loss of habitat and breeding ground. Skunks have learned to live with us and we should be willing to live with them. Yet even today most people only know them by their stinky defense mechanism. By learning more about skunks and their significant role in the ecosystem, we might better appreciate their value. Steer clear while driving and walking outside and keep your dogs away as much as possible, but unless they are a legitimate nuisance (e.g., raiding garbage cans, tearing up lawns, spraying pets) it might be most beneficial to leave them be.