Singing Insects Indicate Ecosystem Diversity

It is an unmistakable sound on late summer evenings with windows wide open–the hum, chirp, trill and buzz of insects. These are the night singing insects, described by Dr. Carl Strang as the cicadas, katydids, crickets and three subfamilies of grasshoppers in which males produce sound displays so females can find them and humans can hear them.

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The Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary protects * habitat type*. Photo by Joe Roti

As a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, IL and a little more “ear oriented than most”, Carl took an interest in the sounds of nature, including those made by insects. His curiosity led him to learn how to identify insects by sound, both by ear and by recordings using computer analysis. In 2006, he initiated a long-term general survey of singing insects in a 22-county region stretching from southeast Wisconsin, northeast Illinois, northwest Indiana and into southwest Michigan. In 2018, his annual census included a stop at MNA’s Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary in Berrien County.
“There are about 100 species in the region and are found in every habitat except open water,” Carl explains. “They are relatively easy to survey because of the sounds, you don’t have to trap them or put in a lot of time with specialized techniques.”

 
“The night singers are not keystone species, most of them are not dependent on a particular plant, nor are they the main food for other animals,” he continued. “Their main value is as indicators of ecosystem quality and diversity.”

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Dave Cuthrell “sweep-netting”, a method to search for tree insects.

What distinguishes this group of insects, according to Carl, is that they are not big travelers, they are limited in movement, and don’t fly very far. “Singing insects can be a good indicator of the health of a system. With some animals you can build it, that is restore habitat, and they will come,” he says, “That’s not so true with singing insects.” Carl believes habitat restoration is important, but not at the expense of protecting and maintaining high quality habitat of critical sizes.

 
Indeed, Carl’s survey is yielding interesting results. 50 to 100 years ago, early work in the field documented species occurrences. Fast forward to current day and some that Carl expected to find or should have found, he is not finding. Some very common—like the dusky-faced meadow katydid—occurred in every marsh 50 years ago. Now he is only finding them in marshes free of invasive plants. “Only a couple of singing insects can live in that kind of habitat,” according to Carl. Habitat degradation and loss is a big factor in declines of singing insects where they once occurred.

 

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Wendy Partridge & Lisa Rainsong look for a long-spurred meadow katydid at Indiana Dunes State Park.

Carl is also finding species that are in his study area now but were not here 50 years ago. Almost all these have come up from the south, he says. A warming climate may be a likely factor, although very tough to prove scientifically.

 
On a surprisingly cool and rainy day in August of 2018, Carl’s work took him to Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary. There he accompanied Nancy Collins, a citizen scientist who is rapidly becoming a recognized tree cricket expert. They stopped to listen and look for the tamarack tree cricket, a species of special concern in Michigan and one that has been known to occur at the nature sanctuary. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, the tamarack tree cricket inhabits dense to open tamarack swamps and fens. Carl and Nancy identified 14 singing species there—but no tamarack tree cricket.

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Tamarack tree cricket. Photo by Dave Cuthrell.

He is not sure whether it was the cool and wet weather that day, or if they were not there at the right time of the season, or if they hit a low period in the cyclical population cycles that insects experience. “The habitat at Butternut Creek looks fine and healthy with lots of tamaracks,” Carl says. “It is definitely worth getting back in there again.”

 

Carl plans to stop back at Butternut Creek this summer to listen for tamarack tree crickets as he conducts his annual 22-county sweep. And starting in late July until late fall when the weather turns cold, listen for the night chorus of singing insects—and know that scientists like Carl and Nancy are listening too.

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Coastal Sanctuaries Protect Changing Shorelines

With ever-fluctuating weather conditions, and uncertainty in how climate change will affect water levels in the Great Lakes basin, the work that MNA is doing to protect habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species is now more important than ever.

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Volunteer Ashley Schilling uses her hand as a measurement for the dwarf lake iris.

One of several coastal sanctuaries that MNA currently maintains is the Spitler Shore Nature Sanctuary in Presque Isle County. This 50-acre sanctuary includes more than 1,500 feet of Lake Huron shoreline, and contains populations of the federally threatened dwarf lake iris. This sanctuary’s habitat, like much of the Great Lakes shoreline, is at risk from extreme and unpredictable fluctuations in water levels, affecting much more than just its magnificent sunrise views.

During the period between 1998 and 2012, Lakes Michigan and Huron experienced persistently low average water levels. This was due in large part to increased evaporation – to which the lakes are susceptible whenever they are not covered by ice. But the winter of 2013-14 brought extended periods of extreme cold, resulting in increased ice cover and protecting the lakes from the much of this evaporation. Since that time, all of the Great Lakes have risen to record-high average levels, the product of both limited evaporation, and heavy precipitation and runoff from the many rivers and streams that feed the lakes. Water levels in 2019 have proven to continue this trend of new record highs, with meteorologists having estimated a 10-inch rise on Lakes Michigan and Huron through July (representing 8 trillion gallons of water) – the lakes were recorded at 13 inches above their 2018 levels, by the end of June.

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Many shipwrecks and their associated debris were newly uncovered during this reduction and influx of water along the shorelines of Huron and Michigan. The photo here shows some of these shipwreck timbers which today rest peacefully once again underwater, discovered by a father and daughter from Camp Chickagami. Photo by John Porter.

These extremes have had profound effects on developed shoreline statewide, with much of Belle Isle being inundated with rising St. Clair River water, and roads in the Upper Peninsula at risk of eroding into Lake Superior. The impact on non-developed shoreline, like that found in Spitler Shore Nature Sanctuary, is yet to be realized, but it is now more clear than ever that these spaces need protecting, so that they can continue to support the diversity of plant and animal life required for a healthy ecosystem.

You can learn more about MNA’s statewide nature sanctuaries online at michigannature.org.

Understanding Conservation Impacts on Michigan’s Rare Turtles

MNA works every day to protect the most vulnerable plant and animal species in the state. Two recent projects of particular interest are the turtle surveys being conducted at MNA sanctuaries in the southern Lower Peninsula.

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Blanding’s turtle crossing a road near Lefglen Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Rachel Maranto.

The Blanding’s turtle is a Michigan species of special concern, due to the risk of habitat fragmentation. Because the Blanding turtles utilize a range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, they are especially impacted by the use of pesticides and the construction of roadways near wetlands, which causes fragmentation of the landscape at wetland complexes.

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Steward Rebecca Kenny holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

Spotted turtles are a Michigan threatened species, which have historically been found in the southern and western areas of the Lower Peninsula. These turtles prefer shallow wetland habitats, such as marshes and fens, and require clean water for their survival.

Both the Blanding and Spotted turtles are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for potential listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act; and both are considered vulnerable to climate change according to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. MNA Volunteers and Stewards have recently conducted preliminary surveys to better understand these species’ usage at several MNA sanctuaries. The initial Blanding’s turtle survey will determine where larger populations may exist within the MNA sanctuary system.

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Steward Dan Burton holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

It is important to continue gathering data on the habitats, plants, and animals that MNA works to protect, as monitoring helps to determine what methods and management techniques are working. MNA looks forward to these turtle surveys, and continuing to provide crucial habitat for these species in the southern Lower Peninsula.

Honoring Pollinators During National Pollinator Week

As some of you may know, pollinators come in all shapes and sizes – from well-known bees and butterflies, to birds and even bats. These animals are critical components in a healthy ecosystem, helping plants thrive and provide food to all members of the food chain. But many pollinators have been experiencing population decline in recent years, which prompted the designation of this week in June as “National Pollinator Week” – to recognize the important role pollinators play in our world, and to focus on ways to help support pollinator populations.

MNA is proud to be a part of protecting many pollinators in Michigan – a few of these species are detailed here.

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Poweshiek skipperling photo by Kelly Nail, USFWS

MNA works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to better understand the decline of the endangered Poweshiek skipperling – a small butterfly at risk of habitat loss due to agriculture and landscape development. The Poweshiek requires plants and soils normally found in prairie fen habitats, which are a vulnerable natural community in Michigan. This once abundant butterfly can now only be found in a handful of sites in the world, including at MNA Sanctuaries.

Bumble bees are some of the most recognizable pollinators in the world, and have been the predominantly referenced species in the fight to save pollinators. The Rusty-patched bumble bee is one of these that have experienced decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use. The Rust-patched bumble bee, named for the brownish-orange patch found on the backs of males and worker bees, requires grasslands and prairies with undisturbed soil for both food and housing. However, many of these areas in the Midwest have been converted to farmland and other developments, such as roads. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears.”

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Rusty-backed bumble bee photo by Kim Mitchell, USFWS

One of the larger pollinators that can be found in Michigan is the Swallowtail butterfly. Many varieties of the Swallowtail exist, some more common than others, but they all play a critical role in the process of plant reproduction. One unique sight in Michigan is groups of swallowtails foraging along damp or muddy sand, where they sip dissolved minerals and salts. They are also for their caterpillar’s defense mechanism – a pair of false eyes that form on the fore section of their body.

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Black swallowtail butterfly photo by Marianne Glosenger.

It is critical that we recognize the important role that pollinators play in our natural communities, and work to protect those habitats that are critical for the pollinators’ survival. There are many ways that you can help pollinators that extend beyond this important week, learn more at pollinator.org or pollinators.msu.edu and canr.msu.edu/pollinators_and_pollination.

Conservation Reserve Program Helps Restore Farmland at Tiffin River Nature Sanctuary

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Contractors for Cardno plant bare root trees using a mechanical planter at Tiffin River Nature Sanctuary.

Recently, MNA conservation stewardship staff began a multi-year prairie and forest restoration initiative at Tiffin River Nature Sanctuary in Lenawee County, which is funded by the Conservation Reserve Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This project seeks to restore native cover on 36 acres of farmland at the sanctuary – helping to return the property to productive habitat for wildlife in the area. The project begins with planting 3500 bare root trees and approximately 150 pounds of native seed and 500 pounds of cover crop over the 36 acres, which will take several years to become well established.

Active management beginning this year will include targeted and invasive species management, as well as mowing to deter weedy competition and rodent damage to trees and shrubs. In a few years, prescribed burning will be included on portions of the restoration area.

This sanctuary lies within the Bean Creek watershed – an approximately 200 square mile area in southern Michigan. The Bean Creek flows into Ohio, where it becomes the Tiffin River, which then flows into the Maumee River and eventually into Lake Erie. Within the Bean Creek watershed, residents have observed diverse freshwater mussels, the shells of which provide habitat for aquatic insects and crayfish.

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150 pounds of native seed, 500 pounds of cover crop, and 3500 bare root trees fill an MNA work truck on its way to be planted at Tiffin River Nature Sanctuary.

Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains that the restoration project will help enhance the quality of the Bean Creek corridor for wildlife as it restores natural vegetation on farm fields immediately adjacent to the Bean Creek. Additionally, the restored riparian fields will assist with decreasing sediment erosion and the runoff of nutrients and pesticides into the creek. “These are targeted conservation practices for the Maumee River Watershed to help improve water quality and decrease nutrient loading in the river and in western Lake Erie near Toledo.”

Why We Burn

Sanctuary stewards in safety gear stand over a patch of scorched ground at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

Seán Mullett, Sam Brodley, and Lance Rogalski pause for a moment while conducting a prescribed burn at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

April is traditionally the peak of burn season in the land stewardship world. You’ve probably noticed more controlled/prescribed burn photos filling up your social media feed; people dressed in yellow, flames and smoke over charred ground. But for as much of the media coverage as these burns get, you don’t often see the stories behind the need for them.

Controlled burns can take place for a number of reasons – to treat and manage invasive species like autumn olive, or in some prairie environments, to prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching and crowding out essential sun-loving wildflowers and prairie plants. Over the past month, MNA stewards conducted prescribed burns at several of its sanctuaries, including Butternut Creek Sanctuary in Berrien County, the goal of which was to maintain the open grassland features of the prairie fen. Prairie fens are critical habitat for a high number of imperiled and declining species including the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest butterflies in the world; known only to exist in Midwestern fens that were created by the retreating glaciers. While the Mitchell’s Satyr has not been observed at this particular sanctuary for a number of years, maintaining healthy prairie fen communities like that found at Butternut Creek is essential to improving threatened, fen-dependent species across the state.

In an excerpt from MNA’s spring 2011 magazine, Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains:

Historically, fire crept through the understory of the forest, but did not necessarily ignite the mid- or upper-levels of the canopy as observed in the intense wildfires of recent times. Prior to human settlement, fire prevented shade-tolerant trees from populating oak-hickory forests, oak barrens and open communities. Without fire, trees like red maple, American beech, basswood and elm survive in the understory and fill gaps in the forest canopy.

As gaps are filled, less sunlight reaches the forest floor, making it impossible for shade-intolerant species like oak and hickory to grow. Herbaceous prairie and savanna species also become shaded out as trees become established. Slowly, the entire species composition of natural communities changes, and many species of plants and animals must find food and habitat elsewhere.

Prescribed fires have had significant and measurable results, such as restoring and protecting the habitat of the federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly. Without active management to keep these critical habitats healthy, these species and other habitat specialists like them would be at greater risk of decline.

MNA Applies for Renewal of Accreditation

Public Comment Period Open Until April 15

The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) first achieved national accreditation through the Land Trust Accreditation Commission in 2014. The accreditation program recognizes land conservation organizations that meet national quality standards and practices for protecting important natural places and working lands forever.  To maintain accreditation status, MNA must renew every five years, and we are pleased to announce that we are applying for renewal of accreditation this spring.

MNA’s Big Valley Nature Sanctuary, Oakland County

The Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance, will conduct an independent review of MNA’s policies and programs to confirm that we continue to meet the highest quality ethical and technical operation standards of a land trust. As part of the application process, a public comment period is now open.

“Maintaining accreditation is one of the many ways MNA is committed to conservation excellence,” said Garret Johnson, MNA’s Executive Director. “It means our conservation work and business practices meet the highest professional standards within the national land trust community. Earning the accreditation seal, a true mark of distinction, speaks volumes to our members, donors, and the public about our ability to uphold their trust and protect important natural lands forever.”

According to the last Land Trust Alliance census in 2016, there are approximately 1,400 land trusts across the country.  Just over 400, or about 29%, have achieved or renewed accreditation.  This network of land trusts have demonstrated fiscal accountability, strong organizational leadership, sound land transactions, and lasting stewardship of the lands they conserve, according to the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.

The Commission invites public input and accepts signed, written comments on pending renewal applications.  Comments must relate to how MNA complies with national quality standards.  For the full list of standards, click here.

To Submit Comments on MNA’s Application

To learn more about the accreditation program and to submit a comment regarding MNA, visit www.landtrustaccreditation.org, or email your comment to info@landtrustaccreditation.org.  Comments may also be faxed or mailed to the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, Attn:  Public Comments: (fax) 518-587-3183; (mail) 36 Phila Street, Suite 2, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866.

Comments on MNA’s application will be most useful by April 15.