Sanctuary Spotlight: Mystery Valley

by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer

If cabin fever is setting in and all of your go-to getaways are busier than ever, it may be time to switch things up and seek out an alternative destination. Presque Isle County in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula is a treasure trove of discovery. Much of northeastern Michigan is composed of limestone rock, but if you look more closely, you will see that there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

There are a number of protected and managed karst features in Alpena and Presque Isle County. Karst terrains are characterized by caves, steep valleys, swallow holes (a place where water disappears or sinks underground), and a general lack of surface streams because drainage is underground. The resulting landscape provides unusual habitats for plants and animals.

Exposed karst formations at Bruski Sink in Presque Isle County. Photo by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer.

In what would otherwise appear to be typical farmland in Presque Isle County are three of these karst features within minutes of each other, and each uniquely different. Bruski Sink and Stevens Twin Sinks are owned and managed by the Michigan Karst Conservancy both offering stellar views of exposed rock faces as well as a short but steep causeway. The 76-acre Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary, which is managed by both the Michigan Nature Association as well as the Michigan Karst Preserve, is regarded as the finest known example of a karst valley with a swallow hole in Michigan.

A welcome kiosk at Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary informs visitors to the features of this unique area. Photo by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer.

Your adventure begins with roadside parking and a trail leading you past a series of earth cracks (Caution: DO NOT CLIMB IN THE EARTH CRACKS!). The path continues further down into the heart of Mystery Valley where you find a recessed valley floor and a large sinkhole. Water rising from beneath the surface often creates a lake that covers the west and lower ends of the valley. Most of the water reaches the surface through a sinkhole in the bedrock at the valley’s west end. Snowmelt and rain runoff also contribute to the water levels. As water flows through the underground drainage system toward Lake Huron, Mystery Valley’s “disappearing” lake drains back through the sinkhole… and disappears.

A sinkhole filled with water at Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Randy Butters.

So if you are looking to experience a unique piece of Michigan nature, look no further than MNA’s Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary, and remember to take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

Learn more and get involved at michigannature.org.

The Sounds of Spring

by Christopher Bobryk

Music has the power to evoke an emotional response in people that promotes healing and improves our overall well-being. Perhaps something many of us could benefit from right now. Luckily, we have our very own symphony playing in our backyards every morning, bellowing from the treetops, powerlines, or even the gutters of your garage. The burbles, buzzes, seets and trills of the dawn chorus are here to help us through some tough and uncertain times. All we need to do is listen.

Sedge Wren

A sedge wren sits along a fence. Photo by Cindy Mead.

Interacting with nature can have profound positive effects on our mental and physical health. These impacts can be seen in communities where increasing access to green spaces, blue spaces (areas surrounding water), street trees, or urban gardens are creating a sense of place that provides solace or reprieve from hectic urban environments. 

This innate connection with nature is a powerful driver for preserving landscapes and ensuring accessibility to these natural areas. However, in our current state of social distancing and self-quarantine, it may be difficult for some to get out into a sanctuary or park, especially city folks sheltered at home, where access to nature may already be limited.

Simply listening to what a morning chorus sounds like is an opportunity, right now, for us to gain back a little bit of normality in our lives. What we hear in a dawn chorus can be a great reminder that the world is much larger, complex, and beautiful than we often realize. 

black-capped chickadee

A black-capped chickadee’s song is widely recognized, and they are often heard before being seen. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The dawn (and dusk) choruses by our avian friends are a spectacular and mysterious part of our everyday soundscape. Scientists do not really know why this phenomenon occurs, although a couple theories suggest the sunrise singing helps birds defend territories and find mates. The amazing part is that we can observe this phenomenon from the comfort of our homes, apartments, backyards, courtyards, or city streets.

In early Spring, we begin to hear the raspy voices of common backyard residents working hard to hone their voice boxes, or syrinx – a special organ that only birds have at the top of their windpipes. For instance, the mumbled tuks and sharp yeeps from an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) can be heard well before the sun peeks through your window. These are welcoming tunes that signal the grip of Winter is relaxing a bit.  

Not all choruses sound that same, either. The quality and complexity of a chorus is largely affected by the type and structure of habitats available to support a variety of songbird species. An area that has a greater diversity of natural structures, like trees, shrubs, tall grasses, or waterways, is likely to hold greater biodiversity, which often rewards you with a kaleidoscope of sounds. 

RWBBParkLyndon by Tim Muffitt

A Red-Winged Blackbird perches on a cattail. Red-Winged Blackbirds are one of the earliest arriving migrating birds in spring. Photo by Tim Muffitt.

Unfortunately, the scale and rate of urban development continues to threaten the shape, function, and legacy of natural areas. We are losing soundscapes at an alarming rate, some which may never return. The noises affiliated with urbanization and growing road networks have an immense effect on how birds communicate, to a point where some species alter their singing when faced with continuous human-made noises.  

The mission of MNA is vital to protecting our natural resources and fostering more livable communities for future generations. The critical work of protecting natural areas is evident in the 180 nature sanctuaries permanently set aside for our exploration. By protecting ecosystems, we are protecting the soundscapes that define these environments, too; a natural resource worth preserving.

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A stream runs through the Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Tina Patterson.

I recently explored the Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary, in Shelby Township, and recorded a short moment spent standing among a cohort of towering tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). The acoustic signature of this preserve is unique and will change over time – offering new acoustic experiences to discover as the seasons change. 

This is a unique time in our lives to take a minute (or two) to really hear what’s happening around us. Think about finding that moment early one morning, maybe just for yourself or family, and celebrate the theme song of Spring.

 

Sanctuary Spotlight: Lefglen Nature Sanctuary

Like many of Michigan Nature Association’s more than 180 nature sanctuaries, the Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County is a gem. Containing more than 200 acres of varied habitats including wooded uplands, oak barrens, cattail marsh, and prairie fen, the sanctuary is a testament to the “nature nuts” after whom it is named – Glenna and “Lefty” Levengood.

Lefglen Dick Holzman, Lefty and Glenna

From left to right, Richard Holzman, “Lefty” and Glenna Levengood. Photo from MNA archives.

Take your first step onto one of the two trails that meander through the property, and you will be immersed in a dense forest canopy of oaks. Continue on this trail that runs alongside the cattail marsh and prairie fen portion of the property, toward a savanna-style habitat known as ‘oak barrens’ and you will be welcomed with an open sky and, on a clear day, the warmth of the sun on your arms. 

This habitat type – oak barrens – occurs predominantly in the southern portion of the Lower Peninsula of the state, and is characterized by a moderate amount of canopy (between 5 and 60%). According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, oak barrens is a critically imperiled natural community in the state, due to its reliance on fire to maintain the open understory, which has become increasingly at risk from invasive plants like Japanese knotweed and black locust trees.

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An aerial view of the marsh and woodlands at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary by Eugene Lidster.

Lefglen Nature Sanctuary is no exception to this phenomena, but thanks to conservation partnerships, like the one this sanctuary shares with Dr. Katherine Greenwald at Eastern Michigan University, the health of both the forest and savanna habitats are monitored and maintained on an annual basis. 

Lefglen students presentation slide

An excerpt from Dr. Greenwald’s Fall 2017 student presentation.

Dr. Greenwald’s Conservation Biology class has been visiting and conducting research at Lefglen during the fall semester since 2014. In the course, students gain both an academic and applied understanding of the key threats to biodiversity conservation, various analytical methods used to assess biodiversity loss, and proposed solutions to remedy these losses. The class is structured as an “Academic-Service Learning” experience, which means that students take the lessons learned in class to a community service project, where they gain hands-on experience with community partners, like MNA.

 

At Lefglen, the students are tasked with mapping the various habitat features of the sanctuary, as well as conducting field service work, which helps prioritize restoration work at the sanctuary for MNA and for future classes. These skills can be directly applied to the students’ conservation careers. Because the class has been visiting over an extended period of time, the students also get to see the long-term effects of habitat management first-hand.

 

This partnership, and others like it, provides a beneficial learning experience for the next generation of conservation scientists, while simultaneously helping MNA to restore critical habitat for a variety of the state’s species, achieving our mission to protect Michigan’s natural heritage.

 

Learn more about the Lefglen Nature Sanctuary, and plan your next visit using our online sanctuary map at michigannature.org!

Lefglen trail by Marianne Glosenger

A trail leads visitors through Lefglen Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Marianne Glosenger.

Dangerous Migration: One of Nature’s Most Impressive Migration Phenomena is at Risk

By William Rapai

 

*The following story appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Michigan Nature Magazine

monarch - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

Many flowers—especially native plants—are terrific sources of nectar for monarch butterflies. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

It’s September at the Michigan Nature Association’s Goose Creek Grassland Sanctuary.

Even though asters and goldenrod are in bloom, most plants that grow here—including the three species of milkweed—are in decline. 

Hanging from the underside of a leaf, a Monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, with an urge to do only one thing: fly to Mexico.

Five generations of Monarchs have hatched already during this calendar year, but this individual is different. Always synchronized to the lifecycle of the milkweed, this Monarch inherently understands that fall is approaching and it must go. 

FWS_Monarch_Migration_Map_5.24.17

Monarch butterflies are not able to survive the cold winters of most of the United States so they migrate south and west each fall to escape the cold weather. They travel much farther than all other tropical butterflies, up to 2,000 miles. They are the only butterflies to make such a long, two-way migration each year. Map courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There are no roadmaps or guideposts for the Monarch and there will be no adults that have made the journey before to show the way. There is only an inner drive that guides the butterfly on a 2,000-mile journey south and west, across the corn belt, the hot, dry plains of Oklahoma and Texas, across the Rio Grande, and over the mountains of Mexico to a place it has never been before—the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve west of Mexico City—where it will spend the winter in hibernation.  

There are Monarchs all across the United States and the southern tier of Canada and biologists split them into two populations. The western population winters in southern California and spreads out across the west coast and the Great Basin in the summer. But the eastern population—those butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains—return to Mexico in the fall in one of the most astonishing natural phenomena on this planet. Other butterflies migrate—both north in the spring and south in the fall—but the Monarch’s journey is unique because of the distance and the entire population somehow finds its way to one location in the mountains of Mexico after being spread out across half of North America. 

 

Reason for Alarm

This eastern migratory population is in jeopardy, however. The Monarch’s population is in trouble, caught in the crossfire of changing land use and habitat loss, drought in the southern plains, dangerous pesticides, and extreme storms. In the early 1990s, the eastern population of the Monarch was estimated at more than 500 million individuals. By 2014, that number had fallen to about 34 million. The population has rebounded somewhat since then—to an estimated 56 million in 2015, according to Chip Taylor, the director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

Even though the numbers have perked up, there is still much reason for concern. A 2016 study of this population by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that it could go extinct sometime in the next two decades. In fact, the eastern Monarch population decline has become such a concern that in 2014 President Barack Obama issued an executive order to create the National Pollinator Task Force to develop an action plan to save declining populations of honeybees and restore the eastern Monarchs to about 225 million. 

The Monarch’s population crash has increased the importance of sanctuaries like the Goose Creek Grasslands. This 70-acre sanctuary is just a postage stamp on a landscape dominated by agriculture, but it has everything a Monarch needs: flowering plants that provide nectar and plentiful milkweed, which is the only food source for Monarch larvae. This place also has sanctuary manager Rachel Maranto and many generous volunteers who work hard to remove glossy buckthorn, an invasive plant that would grow property line-to-property line and quickly dominate the entire landscape if not controlled. 

The on-the-ground work at the Goose Creek Grasslands is representative of the commitment the Michigan Nature Association has made to the Monarch. MNA has been working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other government agencies, non-profits, and citizens to promote the health of the Monarch by promoting the planting of additional nectar plants and milkweeds.

Nectar gardens are particularly important for the Monarch’s fall migratory generation. Weight gained by those butterflies during migration will have to sustain them because they won’t eat anything until they come out of hibernation in March, says Cora Lund Preston, a communications specialist with the Monarch Joint Venture, a Minnesota-based partnership of more than 60 organizations.

There’s one more thing unique to this fall migratory generation: for their entire migration and hibernation, they are locked in a juvenile state called “diapause,” which makes them unable to breed. Always synchronized to the milkweed, they only become adults and breed after they emerge from hibernation in March as milkweed plants sprout in Mexico and Texas. 

But all that is months ahead for this Monarch. It’s a sunny September day, and the Monarch is torn whether to leave Goose Creek. Michigan is a pretty good place for a Monarch in any generation, says Stephen Malcolm, a professor of chemical biology at Western Michigan University. The landscapes of states to the south and southwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa—are a vast monoculture of corn and soybeans that provide very little in the way of food or places to breed.  Michigan’s less agriculturally intense and more complex environmental matrix is good for Monarchs because it provides more places for milkweed and nectar plants to grow. In addition, the moderating impact of the Great Lakes limits temperature extremes. 

monarchs at Fred Dye by Adrienne Bozic

Monarch butterflies at MNA’s Fred Dye Nature Sanctuary in Mackinac County. Photo by Adrienne Bozic.

Despite those luxuries, migratory restlessness is too much to overcome and this Monarch lifts off from a goldenrod, to start a perilous journey. This trip would be dangerous for any animal let alone one that weighs only about a half a gram—a hundred times as heavy as a grain of sand. There are predators and the risk of being struck by a speeding vehicle or being caught in an early frost. 

 

Near Impossible Challenge

Like other Monarchs traveling across the Midwest, this butterfly’s first challenge is finding food on a vast landscape of corn and soybeans. Often there are flowering plants growing along rural roads—New England aster, stiff goldenrod, black-eyed Susan—but there’s also danger here. If the plants are near an agricultural field there’s a chance they have been contaminated with neonicotinoids or some other insecticide. 

Neonicotinoids are considered harmless to humans in small amounts, but to insects like butterflies and honeybees they are deadly. The pesticide is systemic, which means it reaches into all parts of the plant and kills any insect that comes in contact with any portion of the plant. Many of the corn and soybean seeds planted across the Midwest are treated with neonicotinoids, and the insecticide is absorbed as the plant germinates and grows. Other neonicotinoids are sprayed on plants or are included in irrigation water, which unfortunately allows them to spread to nearby non-agricultural plants. For a pollinator like a honeybee, even a minute amount is lethal.

For the Monarch, however, the impact of neonicontinoids will be fully felt when a new generation arrives back in the Midwest the following spring. A 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that even if milkweeds are not treated directly, they can contain neonicotinoid compounds in levels high enough to be fatal to Monarch caterpillars if they grow near treated agriculture. (You may very well have a neonicotinoid compound in your house even if you pride yourself on not using pesticides on your garden. Have a dog or cat? If it wears a flea or tick collar, it likely has a neonicotinoid as an active ingredient.)

California monarch - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

Mountains west of Mexico City are the winter refuge for most of the monarch butterflies in North America. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture.

As the Monarch approaches the Rio Grande, it and other migrating Monarchs from across the eastern United States funnel into a narrow corridor that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. There are two dangers here: drought and tropical storms. A four-year drought in this area earlier this decade took a severe toll, as Monarchs were unable to find food as they traveled through the area. In 2011 alone, 97% of Texas was in drought with 88% of the state experiencing severe drought. 

Mexico - monarchs on trees - Wendy Caldwell

After migrating from the United States and Canada, monarch butterflies spend the winter in oyamel firs at a few mountain forests in Mexico. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture.

That drought also had an impact for three straight springs: Monarchs emerging from hibernation in March went north expecting to find young milkweed plants growing so they could breed and lay eggs and for three straight years there were almost none. A wet spring in Texas in 2015 gave the migrants a bumper crop of milkweed, and the Monarch population responded accordingly. 

And then there is the danger of running headlong into a tropical storm entering Texas or northern Mexico from the Gulf of Mexico. Biologists say it’s common for Monarchs to survive the heavy rains and high winds by burying themselves in leaf litter, hiding under rocks, or taking shelter in a hollow part of a tree. 

Ten weeks after it left Goose Creek, this Monarch has made it safely to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico. Technically this reserve is a tropical resort—only about 19 degrees north of the Equator—but at nearly two miles above sea level, the area has a unique microclimate and winter temperatures range between 32 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The butterflies cluster together on the branches of evergreen trees to keep warm.

But this clustering—the entire population in less than 50,000 acres—makes the Monarchs vulnerable. A storm in early March 2016 brought cold temperatures and high winds that knocked down about 133 acres of trees and killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies. 

 

A Cycle Worth Saving

In March, the sun climbs higher overhead, the thin mountain air begins to warm and millions of Monarchs emerge from hibernation and search for food. No longer in diapause, they now also search for mates and milkweed plants to lay their eggs and continue the butterfly’s lifecycle. 

There will be as many as five generations during the year as the Monarch again spreads out across eastern North America, reaching Michigan and the Goose Creek Sanctuary in early May. 

And on a late summer day, with the milkweed in decline at a sanctuary in southern Michigan, a Monarch will emerge from its chrysalis, with an urge to do only one thing. 

monarch on a goldenrod - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

A monarch butterfly rests on goldenrod before continuing toward its migration destination. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture. 

William Rapai is the author of two Michigan Notable Books: The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon and has a milkweed/pollinator garden in his front yard.