Bee Restoration, Lake Trout, and Birding Apps: this week in environmental news

To save bees, city plans 1,000 acres of prairie (mother nature network): It’s generally a bad time to be a bee in the United States. Populations of the pollinating insects have been declining for more than a decade, including managed honeybee colonies as well as various species of native wild bees. Of course, this isn’t just bad news for bees. Not only do honeybees give us honey and wax, but bees of all stripes play a pivotal role in our food supply. This spring, the city of Cedar Rapids will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, part of a broader plan to create a diffuse, 1,000-acre haven for bees and other pollinators. This should help local ecosystems as well as local farms, and if it works as intended, it could become a model for similar projects elsewhere. The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative in Cedar Rapids is hoping to create a movement to build oases for pollinators across the country.

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A bee forages among purple flowers near Iowa City. Photo: Geoffrey Fairchild/Flickr.

Searching for bee veterinarians (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan State University is searching for veterinarians willing to treat bees. The Pollinator Initiative at Michigan State launched the search after a recent FDA decision outlawed over-the-counter antibiotics for all food-producing animals. That means a veterinarian has to give beekeepers a prescription for antibiotics. Meghan Milbrath, a beekeeper of 23 years, has a list of 22 Michigan veterinarians who are willing to work with beekeepers, and it is online for beekeepers to find and pick from, depending on their location. In the meantime, Milbrath will train the veterinarians on how to write bee prescriptions. She is teaching online courses and hosting monthly webinars. Eventually, she hopes to create a bee health elective in the College of Veterinary Medicine at MSU.

Unique lake trout could help restore Lake Michigan population (Great Lakes Echo): Scientists have found a potential new ally in the fight to restore lake trout in Lake Michigan. Elk Lake in Northwest Michigan is home to a strain of that fish that researchers believe can contribute uniquely to restoring it. Elk Lake trout have been self-sustaining and reproducing for years. Scientists have been attempting for decades to reintroduce strains from Lake Superior and other areas in the basin–with mixed success. Stocking from Elk Lake may be more successful. Diversity benefits reintroduction efforts because different strains survive in different habitats. Improving lake trout stocking has broad public support.

It’s like Shazam for birds: Song Sleuth app IDs birds by their song (treehugger): The Song Sleuth app was just released for iOS, with an Android version in the works for this fall, and it not only helps people become better birders by helping them identify birds by their songs, but it also includes access to The David Sibley Bird Reference, which offers additional details about the birds, including the birds’ seasonal range maps, song samples, and illustrations of their appearance. Song Sleuth users need merely open the app, push the record button, and allow the app to listen in and record the bird’s song, after which the users are presented with the three most probable birds that the song belongs to. Users can geotag their recordings, add custom notes to them, download the audio files for future reference, or even send their recordings to others via email of messaging apps, further adding to the social nature of the birding community (or used to attract more people to the art and science of birding).

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Song Sleuth App. © Wildlife Acoustics.

Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary: A Sacred Place of Cedars

From the Wilder Side of Oakland County on the Oakland County Blog

By Jonathan Schechter – he is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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“I enter the swamp as a sacred place”— Henry David Thoreau.

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Cedar swamp habitat takes on a special beauty that is mysterious, captivating and full of wonder in winter. It’s also a vital place of survival for rare species of flora and fauna, functions as a water storage location, and often as an aquifer recharging site. The Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary, managed by the Michigan Nature Association, is one the highest quality wetland complexes found on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. One week has passed since I trekked into that swamp under a light drizzle laced with wet snow flakes. I emerged with mud caking my boots, ankles, knees and backside. I was a bit bruised and slightly scratched, rather wet and tired, yet exceedingly happy and eager to return on a day when the sun shines.

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A northern white cedar swamp is a nature-lover’s dream, no matter the season. The scent of cedar on a moist wintery day is exquisite. However if you want to hike on a well-marked paved trail, or if you worry about hiking over extremely slippery planks and boardwalks, this swamp trail is not the place for you. Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is also an excellent eastern massasauga rattlesnake habitat, but a few more months will slip by before these reclusive reptiles, our only venomous snake, will emerge from the moist crayfish burrows where they now hibernate. Poison sumac is present and remains volatile in winter.

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The trail is a narrow and primitive twisting footpath. Colorful and slippery exposed roots of cedar and birch trees grow across the trail – seemingly waiting to trip the unwary. Small diamond-shaped trail markers can be found along the route, but it’s easy to make a wrong turn. I did, but another hiker, the only other hiker I encountered, quickly ‘turned me around’ and my exploration continued. Off-trail hiking at this sanctuary is difficult to say the least, especially when entering thickets of white cedar, some standing, some bent low from storms, and others in their final resting places after succumbing to storms. Stepping around the blowdowns brings another challenge, mucky soil that struggles to suck hiking boots off feet. It also brings discoveries.

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I hiked slowly, stopping often to look and listen. The rewards were endless. Turkey tail fungus edged many of the fallen trees. Lichens clung to the trunks of standing trees along the banks of a tributary of Stony Creek. Owl pellets, most likely from the swamp loving barred owl, were under one tree, and another tree was the obvious roost for wild turkeys. How do I know that? A mat of turkey poo covered decaying leaves confirmed their night roost. Soft, green, moisture-holding sphagnum moss grew on sedge hummocks, and I suspect wood frogs and salamanders hibernated underneath the adjacent decaying trees.

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Exposed tree roots were a special attraction. The presence of the sphagnum moss facilities, the formation of adventitious roots and “branch layering.” When a cedar tree falls, the lateral branches often take over and grow upright as new trees. The result gives the impression of cedar trees locked in romantic trailside embraces, sometimes being joined by nearby yellow birch trees.

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It’s a site worthy of being protected, and it is. The Michigan Nature Association, established in 1952, is a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect Michigan’s rare, threatened and endangered species by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is one of their sanctuaries, and is located on Rochester Road just south of Lakeville Road in Addison Township. The pamphlet at the small kiosk at the Rochester Road trailhead states, “MNA’s members, donors, and volunteers have built a remarkable network of more than 170 nature sanctuaries across the state – the largest network of natural areas established and maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization in Michigan.”

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The section I explored is on the west side of Rochester Road, and has a very small roadside parking area. A flatter, more open swampy area with no trails is on the east side of Rochester Road. In addition to the cedar swamp, a magical wild kingdom for those that appreciate its wonder, the 76 acre preserve, one of the most biologically diverse sanctuaries in Oakland County, also has prairie fen, southern wet meadow habitat, and a small area of oak barrens.

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The sanctuary is open to the public without fees or vehicle permits. The trailhead and informational kiosk is located on the west side of Rochester Road. No facilities are present.  Stewardship and maintenance at the site is supported in part by REI Outfitters. For information on all Michigan Nature Association Sanctuaries, including six in Oakland County visit michigannature.org.

For more about the Oakland County Blog, find the latest county news and events, visit their website and use #OaklandCounty on their FacebookTwitterInstagram and LinkedIn pages.

Michigan Lake and Stream Leaders Institute, Frogs, and Endangered Bumblebees: this week in environmental news

Michigan Lake and Stream Leaders Institute (MSU Extension): The Michigan Lake and Stream Leaders Institute (LSLI) provides a unique and intensive leadership development opportunity for citizens, local leaders, and water resource professionals who wish to develop technical and people skills needed by leaders who can effectively protect Michigan’s lakes and streams. Participants take part in classroom and field-based sessions designed to help them better understand local water resource management planning and program implementation. Expert presenters from academia, natural resource agencies, and local communities cover topics including watershed management, lake and stream ecology, environmental education, leadership, and working with local and state government. The Institute is conducted through five in-depth sessions held across Michigan. The sessions will be held:

  • June 2-3: Kettunen Center, near Cadillac
  • August 18-19: Kellogg Biological Station, near Kalamazoo
  • October 6: Michigan State University, East Lansing
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Bullfrog ready for dinner. Photo: Martin Hejzlar/Shutterstock

Supernatural spit is the frog’s secret weapon for catching bugs (Mother Nature Network): Frogs are famous for the long sticky tongue they use to snag prey. But what is it about this tongue that allows a frog to nab an insect, pull the insect back to its mouth with lightening speed, and eat it — yet the stickiness doesn’t glue the frog’s mouth shut? The secret is super sticky saliva that’s reversible. A new study demonstrates that the saliva can turn from a honey-like viscosity to one more like water and back again, and all within a few seconds. Super-special spit and a trippy tongue make capturing insects a snap.

National Park Service starts keeping track of park disturbances (Great Lakes Echo): For the first time, the National Park Service is collecting concrete data to monitor and find patterns in what affects national park landscapes. The data on how park landscapes are affected by various disturbances both inside and outside the parks will help park managers maintain them for the ecosystem and for the visitors. Fire and beavers, for example, play key roles in developing habitat by changing the structure or composition of the landscape. Similarly, some human-induced disturbances are better for the environment than others. Sustainable forest harvest can aid the regeneration of a forest, while land development for things like new parking lots do not. Cataloging the disturbances will help with assessing if the impact is beneficial or recoverable.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered in early January, a first for any bee species. Image: Dan Mullen.

Fight invasives or protect pollinators: Neonicotinoids present tough choice (Great Lakes Echo): Neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides frequently used in agriculture, gets plenty of bad press for killing pollinators like honeybees. But they’ve also emerged as an important combatant of the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has devastated ash populations all over the United States with the highest risk localized to the American Midwest and the northern half of the Eastern seaboard. For pollinator protectors in Michigan, that’s a problem. With the recent designation of the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – the first time any bee species in the U.S. has landed on such a list – the race for effective conservation tactics has accelerated. The Michigan Pollinator Protection Plan Committee will have a draft of the plan available for public comment between March 10 and April 14.

Species Spotlight: Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Inspiring both our fear and fascination, snakes have long been subjects of lore and objects of persecution, and more recently, household adornments for reptile enthusiasts. Less appreciated about these legless creatures is the ecological role they play as middle-order predators. They serve as a food source for other wildlife, but also help to control small mammal populations – chiefly that of rodents. As such they act as indicator species, which from an ecological standpoint means their conservation also entails the conservation of entire natural systems which support an array of plants and animals.

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The threatened Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake. Photo: Ryan Bolton.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, sometimes called the Michigan Rattlesnake, Prairie Massasauga, or Swamp Massasauga, is one of several Michigan-native snakes, but is Michigan’s only venomous snake. Still, it poses little to no threat to humans. This timid species is extremely reclusive and avoids humans as best it can, preferring to remain camouflaged or leave the area when disturbed. Despite a somewhat fearsome reputation, rattlesnakes strike in defense only as a last resort.

Grown adults are of modest proportions, reaching only 2-3 feet in length. They are characterized by a light grey or tan base color with rows of large, dark brown circles and the hallmark triangular or heart-shaped head. The young are paler, but no less brightly-patterned. It ranges throughout the entire lower peninsula in swamps and wet lowlands. Occasionally it can also be found sunning in drier uplands.

Like many others of its kind, this once-common species has been driven to decline largely due to the loss of wetland habitats from urban and agricultural development, needless persecution and snake fungal disease, and is now classified as threatened or endangered in every state across its American range spanning from Pennsylvania to Missouri and Minnesota. MNA is a key stakeholder in the conservation of the Eastern Massasauga and currently protects several Eastern Massasauga habitats in Oakland, Berrien, Van Buren and Mackinac counties.

Education and awareness can play an important role in the future of this species. If trekking through areas of possible rattlesnake habitation, be sure to wear thick shoes and pants or socks that reach past your ankles. Though sightings are rare, if you see a snake which you suspect to be a rattler, keep a respectful distance and restrain pets to prevent them from agitating the snake. Much has yet to be learned about these reclusive creatures, but perhaps with a trained eye, visitors to MNA sanctuaries can observe them in their natural element.

5K to Benefit Rare Species

Rattlesnake Run at the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland County! Photo: Yoshi Naruse.

MNA also educates the public about the species at the Annual Rattlesnake Family Fun Run & 5K in Rochester. This year the race will take place on Sunday, September 17 along the Paint Creek Trail. The 5K will promote efforts to preserve habitat for the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake.

Lake Erie Waves, Great Lakes Forests, and Mudpuppies: this week in environmental news

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Turbulent waves in Lake Erie. Photo: Dave Sandford.

This Is What A Great Lake Looks Like After All The Vacationers Are Gone (Buzzfeed): Photographer Dave Sanford spent time on Lake Erie shooting the Great Lake’s turbulent fall season. From mid-October to mid-November, the longtime professional sports photographer traveled each week to Port Stanley, Ontario, on the edge of Lake Erie to spend hours taking photos. His goal was to capture the exact moment when lake waves driven by gusting winds collide with a rebound wave that’s created when the water hits a pier and collection of boulders on the shore. People are blown away that these are from a lake, and not an ocean due to the size and force.

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Crayfish in Burt Lake are thought to be on the decline. Image: Greg Schechter, Flickr.

Pharmaceutical pollution takes toll on crayfish and other species (Great Lakes Echo): Drugs seeping into groundwater threaten crayfish and have a domino effect of environmental impacts that harm fish and other species, according to new research. Pharmaceutical pollution happens when medicines are improperly disposed or flushed into septic tanks and sewers as the body eliminates them. Treatment can’t filter them so they make their way into lakes and streams. Crayfish are a keystone species, one that many others species depend upon. If they died, so would trout and bass. That would lead to algae overgrowth and in turn, insects and invertebrates would die when decaying algae used up all the oxygen. At this point there are not solutions for removing pharmaceuticals once they are in lakes and streams, so this is a prevention issue. We need to keep it out of the waterways, improving septic and sewer systems to filter pharmaceutical pollution is a critical need.

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Red pine forest in West Michigan. Image: Marie Orttenburger.

Researchers look to brace Great Lakes forests for climate change (Great Lakes Echo): Great Lakes forests will get warmer and suffer more frequent short-term droughts, scientists say. The stakes are high. Forests are staple ecosystems in the region. Many wildlife and plant species depend on forest stability. Plus, forests are a part of the regional culture. The approaches to climate change adaptation for trees are as diverse as the tree species.

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Underwater shot of a mudpuppy at Wolf Lake. Image: Alicia Beattie.

Secretive amphibian can provide pollution clues (Great Lakes Echo): The mudpuppy is a fully-aquatic salamander thought to be on the decline–though the extent of that decline is unknown. The foot-long amphibians are classified a “threatened species” in the state of Illinois and considered a concern throughout the Great Lakes region. Destruction and degradation of habitat, along with invasive species, are spelling doom for mudpuppies. Mudpuppies are also very sensitive to pollution. That characteristic could make them especially important to researchers. Population statistics and tissue samples could clue scientists in on the effects pollution and habitat degradation are having on those environments.

Showcase Sanctuary: Dowagiac Woods

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Hunter’s Creek. Photo: Dan Sparks-Jackson

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Since its establishment as a Michigan Nature Association sanctuary in 1983, Dowagiac Woods has become renowned for its dazzling, weeks-long display of spring wildflowers.  In fact, this in part is what inspired the Michigan Nature Association’s interest; shortly after a member visited the woods in 1975 and noted the abundance of Blue-eyed Mary on a 220-acre forest lot that was for sale, an appeal was made for funding to purchase it. The original purchase has since been expanded to encompass an additional 164 acres.

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Trails of Wildflowers. Photo: Judy Kepler

Every year visitors walk the trails meandering through the diverse blooms, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in the state. However, Dowagiac Woods is a unique example of the value of Michigan’s natural heritage, not just for its famed spring wildflowers, but because it’s a largely undisturbed 384-acre block of high-quality forest habitat with ample biodiversity to support a variety of Michigan-native wildlife, including many rare and some endangered species. Nearly 50 kinds of trees and hundreds of various other plant species, as well as close to 50 kinds of birds, have been catalogued by MNA. These include the Yellow-throated warbler whose clear songs grace visitors with joyful notes, the notorious Pileated woodpecker, and the rare and lovely Cerulean warbler.

Large, intact forest blocks like Dowagiac Woods are vital to the composition of habitats that support an array of wildlife, yet are becoming increasingly rare in southern Michigan as landscapes are fragmented by industry and human use. Additionally, the majority of Michigan’s intact forests reside in the upper half of the state. Thus, as the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula and a rare, high-quality example of the natural state of Michigan’s mesic southern and southern floodplain forests, Dowagiac Woods is truly a state treasure.

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Dowagiac Woods the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula. Photo: Patricia Pennell

The ecological importance of biologically diverse plant communities can’t be overstated. Plants form the basis of habitats and aid in performing various hydrological functions not limited to natural flood control, water purification, and the cycling of water. They anchor and enrich the soil, cycle important nutrients, and convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. Forests also act as important carbon sinks by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. The more diverse the community of plants that make up a community, the more efficiently it can function as a whole and perform these essential services. When biodiversity drops, ecosystems become less resilient against disturbances like disease or fire, because a single species comprises a much greater proportion of the plant community and its decline takes a greater toll.

With the exception of a section of woods that was selectively cut in the 1960s, the majority of Dowagiac Woods has thankfully remained undisturbed. The Michigan Nature Association’s mission is to preserve and maintain pristine areas like Dowagiac Woods. With soil that has never been plowed and trees that have never been clear-cut, it is the closest illustration of how Michigan’s forests may have looked prior to settlement. Visitors are encouraged to walk the trails and take in the rare sights and sounds of the many unique species found there. With careful management, what remains of Michigan’s natural heritage may yet be enjoyed for generations to come.

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