Estivant Pines: A Living Museum

The Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, protecting the largest remaining stand of old growth white pines in Michigan, celebrates its 45th anniversary.

By William Rapai

Time passes slowly at Estivant Pines.

Nobody knows that better than Gary Willis, a forester with the Michigan Department of Bertha and groupNatural Resources and former assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. Willis knows this place better than most people. When you see this preserve through his eyes you begin to understand that the best way to truly appreciate this place is not to consider time in hours, years, and decades but in centuries, periods and eras.

Estivant Pines is the Michigan Nature Association’s 510 acre sanctuary in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Despite its remote location—down a pothole-strewn dirt road south of Copper Harbor—it is one of the organization’s most popular sanctuaries. Every summer, thousands of people from across the United States visit, wandering two looping trails to marvel at white pine trees that stand 120 feet tall.

But there aren’t many visitors to Estivant Pines in the late winter or early spring because the road that leads to the sanctuary is usually under several feet of snow or too muddy to be drivable. However, the period after snowmelt and before trees emerge from dormancy is the best time to see and understand time’s impact by looking down—not up—and closely examining what is and isn’t here.

What is here is volcanic bedrock that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history and carbonized tree stumps that are the remains of a cataclysmic forest fire more than 200 years ago. What isn’t here is surprising and confounding. The plant life in the understory is healthy—lots of lichens, mosses, ferns, maples, birches, cedars, spruces, and balsams. Surprisingly, there are few young white pines even though these 240-300 year-old trees have produced millions of viable seeds during their lifetimes.

img 1198Willis gained these insights when he was a forester for the Michigan Nature Association. In the late 1990s he started working at Estivant Pines at the request of Michigan Nature Association’s founder Bertha Daubendiek. Willis was given a unique opportunity to study these ancient trees after a logger accidentally trespassed on the sanctuary and cut a number of the trees along one of the boundaries.

Daubendiek sent Willis out to write a damage report, but during the process he started to see this incident as a unique opportunity to study how these giant trees grew. As he measured the width of the stumps and correlated individual ring-widths he began to understand these trees through the prism of time.

But it’s not just the trees that are measured in time. Much of this sanctuary sits on a high ridge of volcanic bedrock that runs between Annie Creek and the Montreal River that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history, some 1.1 billion years ago. In fact, Willis said, other researchers at Michigan Tech have discovered the Keweenaw was once one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth.

It’s difficult to see it from the landscape level, but Willis says if you look at an aerial photo of the peninsula, you can see a series of ridges left behind from that volcanic flow. Those ridges run parallel to the shoreline and curve as the shoreline curves and narrows as it reaches the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Even though we tend to think of these trees as old, the plant community here is in its infancy, relatively speaking. Plants—trees, shrubs and grasses—established themselves only about 10,000 years ago following the withdrawal of the Wisconsin Glacier.

Tree roots - Brittany AllenMultiple glaciers over the past 2.5 million years left behind a thin layer of soil that can support plant life but generally is not deep enough to anchor a 100-foot-tall tree. To compensate for the lack of soil, most of the pines have grown roots deep into fractures and crevices in the bedrock. Some trees have been lost to windstorms but remarkably few considering that the sanctuary sits at an altitude that varies between 200 and 500 feet above lake level. That altitude leaves these trees exposed to powerful winter winds that blow across Lake Superior. In the winter, this sanctuary can get more than 275 inches of snow in a single season. The combination of heavy, wet snow and strong wind can bring even the hardiest tree down, says Donald Dickmann, professor emeritus of silviculture and physiological ecology at Michigan State University and co-author of The Forests of Michigan. Fortunately, most of the snow that blankets the Keweenaw’s rocky ridges is light and fluffy lake effect powder.

Summer brings heavy thunderstorms and gusty winds, and the trees, which tower above the hardwood canopy, are sitting ducks for lightning strikes. One of those lightning strikes more than 200 years ago might have been the spark for a fire that ravaged this area and set the stage for the Estivant Pines as we see them today.

Those carbonized tree stumps and little bits of charcoal strewn across the landscape point to a potent wildfire that swept through the area in the late 1700’s. Willis said it likely wiped out most of the white pines that had been standing on that spot perhaps for centuries. Just as the towering, mature pines today prevent the young pines from growing underneath, those earlier pines prevented any new ones from growing beneath them. It’s not that these trees are refusing to reproduce; it’s just their reproductive strategy. Barring a major fire, disease or insect threats, these pines could be here for another 300 years before they reach the end of their natural lifecycle. As that happens, the maples, birches, spruces, and balsams that make up the understory will continue to grow and mature and create a thick new canopy 50 feet or more under the tops of the pines. As those trees mature and die, fuel for a future fire will continue to build up on the forest floor, waiting for a spark.Marianne Glosenger - Estivant Pines NO WATERMARK hi res

When that fire eventually arrives, the pines’ continued existence will depend on its intensity. A moderate fire may not cause any damage because the old trees are protected by a thick layer of bark. But if the fire is intense enough the heat will fry the layer under the bark that transports water and nutrients up the trunk. That will kill the tree even if the fire does not reach the top branches. If that happens, the tree, knowing that it will soon die, will put all its energy into seed production. The year following the fire, massive amounts of seeds will cover the now-bare, ash-covered soil and thousands of new white pine trees will germinate if there is enough rain.

And the cycle will begin again.

Ancient white pine trees like the Estivant Pines once covered a good portion of Michigan. loggingIn the late 19th century, lumberjacks cut these trees to supply wood for houses, barns, and carriages needed by a fast-growing nation. At the time, it was thought that Michigan had an inexhaustible supply of white pine.

Only a few stands of virgin white escaped the lumberjack’s gluttony—this one, of course, one at Hartwick Pines State Park northeast of Grayling, and another stand on private property east of L’Anse are the three best known. But Don Dickmann of Michigan State says he has found small stands of them in other places in the Upper Peninsula. Those stands, like Estivant Pines, were spared through random chance and, more recently, the passion of local citizens who wanted to preserve these trees for what they represent.

nancy leonard - epines make a difference dayTwo people who have come to deeply appreciate the history represented by these pines are Bill and Nancy Leonard, who organize volunteers and stewards for the Michigan Nature Association in the Keweenaw Peninsula. They work closely with sanctuary stewards Ted and Alice Soldan to maintain the boardwalks and trails. Bill Leonard said that as he’s working he enjoys talking with visitors and is always amazed by how many people from faraway places around the country come to see these giants multiple times.

“It just pulls people back,” Leonard said.

Indeed it does. But those visitors? For now, it seems, they can take their time.

 

William Rapai is the author of three Michigan Notable Books including The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon.

As seen in the feature story in the Winter 2018 issue of the Michigan Nature magazine.

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2018 Race for Michigan Nature

5K Race Banner for social media

Sign up today! 
Join MNA in the
Race for Michigan Nature
series across the state

Enjoy the beautiful outdoors and run, walk, or jog
along the park trails in select cities across Michigan
with the Michigan Nature Association!

MNA’s statewide Race for Michigan Nature series
of Family Fun Runs & 5Ks stretches from Belle Isle
in Detroit to Marquette in the U.P. The races are
endorsed by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness,
Health and Sports and qualify for the Pure Michigan Challenge.

The Family Fun Runs & 5Ks will promote efforts to
preserve habitat for threatened and endangered
species throughout Michigan.

Register Today

Bring the whole family! The Kids Fun Run will
be a 1 mile race 30 minutes prior to the 5K.

Kids 1 Mile Fun Run: $10
5K Run/Walk: Early registration is just $25 ($30 day-of).

Participants will receive a
commemorative Run t-shirt,
a finisher medal, and a
Discover Michigan Nature drawstring bag!
Prizes for the top male and female runners.

Volunteers are also needed!
We’re looking for energetic individuals and organizations
to provide great customer service to our 5K participants.
Interested in helping with registration, monitoring along
the course, or handing out medals?
We have a spot for everyone!

If you have any questions please call Jess at
866-223-2231 or email her at jfoxen@michigannature.org.

We hope to see you there!

Find a race in your area!

Grand Rapids
​Karner Blue Butterfly Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, May 20
Millennium Park
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Kalamazoo
Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 9
Mayor’s Riverfront Park – Kalamazoo River Valley Trail
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Rochester
Rattlesnake Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 30
Rochester Municipal Park – Paint Creek Trail
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Detroit
Sturgeon Sprint Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, August 12
Belle Isle Park
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Marquette
Moose on the Loose Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, August 25
Presque Isle Park
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Ann Arbor
Turtle Trot Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, September 16
Gallup Park
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Spring has Sprung?

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

As usual, Michigan is having a little bit of trouble deciding when it wants to transition into springtime. Don’t let the occasional snow shower worry you, there are a few sure signs that you can look for to keep up hope that spring is on its way! Michigan’s beloved flora and fauna will bring the sounds and sights of springtime, such as the spring peeper, the American robin, and wild trilliums.

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Spring peeper. Photo: Tim Mayo.

Some music to your ears might be the classic “tinkling of bells” of the Michigan spring peeper. Around early March, when the ground begins thawing, this abundant amphibian species begins its mating season. The peeping you hear is the male frog calling out to potential mates. The more intense the peeping, the more likely the males are to attract their desired female. If you live near wetland areas, such as a damp woodland, marsh, or pond, you are likely to hear these creatures singing away on a warming spring night.

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American robin. Photo: Tara Rampersad.

While the spring peepers sing you to sleep, another sign that spring is near is being awoken by the return of migratory birds. The classic harbinger of spring is the American robin, Michigan’s state bird. You might recognize its song from the often repeated whistle of cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. When the average temperature fluctuates around 37 degrees, the male robins will be the first to make themselves known as they establish territories and begin feeding. Female robins will return a couple weeks later to begin building nests and feeding on worms from the thawing grounds. You’ll hear them start singing as they arrive on their breeding territories!

Another bird that is usually a first sign of spring in Michigan is the red-winged blackbird, with some arriving as early as mid-February. Males will sing their song, conk-la-ree from a high perch, awaiting the female response of a series of several chits. These birds prefer wetland areas, so if you are near standing water and vegetation, look out for these birds. You will also start seeing more shorebirds and hearing more owls and woodpeckers. The return of these birds from late March through May marks prime bird watching season.

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Trillium. Photo: Mary Bohling.

You might notice the budding of trees, and if you look closely some wildflowers are indicators that spring is on its way. The trillium is one that you might see first, a three petaled flower with dark green leaves and pale green accents. The arrival of the wildflowers ushers in the return of pollinators to help speed the spring process along!

Vernal Pool Patrol Training Workshops

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory and MSU Extension are hosting three FREE vernal pool patrol training workshops this spring! Sign up today to learn more about vernal pools and how you can help monitor and protect these important wetlands!

Sunday, April 8
Leslie Science and Nature Center
1831 Traver Road, Ann Arbor
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Phyllis Higman at higman@msu.edu or 517-242-3269

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Friday, April 13
Hemlock Crossing Nature Education Center
8115 West Olive Road, West Olive, Ottawa County
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Ashley Adkins at hurdashl@msu.edu or 517-284-6211

Ottawa Co. April 13 Workshop- FB

Saturday, April 21
Hemlock Crossing Nature Education Center
8115 West Olive Road, West Olive, Ottawa County
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Ashley Adkins at hurdashl@msu.edu or 517-284-6211

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Join MNA at our Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids

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You’re Invited! 
Join MNA in Grand Rapids for the
2018 Annual Meeting

Saturday, Apil 28 – 12:30 p.m. 
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park 
1000 E. Beltline Ave. Grand Rapids, Michigan

Join the Michigan Nature Association for the 2018
Annual Meeting on Saturday, April 28 at 12:30 p.m.
at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
in Grand Rapids. Your free ticket to the Annual Meeting
includes admission into the Gardens and Sculpture Park!
The annual Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies are Blooming
exhibit
will be open and is the nation’s largest temporary
tropical butterfly exhibition.

Keynote Speaker

Jefferson Gray

Enjoy a special presentation on “Shipwreck Alley” and its connection
to MNA’s newest sanctuary. Jefferson is the Superintendent at the
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest freshwater marine
sanctuary in the world, covering 4,300 square miles of northern Lake Huron.

Sign Up Today to Reserve Your Spot – Space is Limited

Tickets are free! Please RSVP by April 20.
Call Jess at 866-223-2231,
email her at jfoxen@michigannature.org,
or register online here.

We hope to see you there!

Invasive Profile: Dame’s Rocket

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

One problem with identifying invasive species is that, many times, they appear almost as beautiful as the native species they live among. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been an established invasive in North America for many years, yet without knowing the story behind this species it appears to be just another of Michigan’s many gorgeous flowering plants. This same story follows for another species in the Brassicaceae family which has been spreading throughout Michigan without the same spotlight as garlic mustard.

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Dame’s rocket. Photo: Gary Fewless.

With delicate violet flowers atop a slender green stalk, nothing about this flowering plant seems out of the ordinary for a wildflower native to Michigan; this assumption, however, is sadly misinformed. Dame’s rocket is one of the many common names for Hesperis matronalis, a close relative to the widely known invasive garlic mustard. This relation can be determined visually through examination of the petals and the similarity in shape between the leaves of the two species. An additional similarity Dame’s rocket has to garlic mustard is its two year life cycle –  the first year plant exists as a rosette low to the ground and without flowers, while the second year plant is the more recognizable image shown to the left. An important distinction to make when identifying Dame’s rocket is that it has four petals per flower head. Native phlox species appear similar in structure and flower color yet have five petals per flower head.

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Garlic mustard. Photo: K. Chayka

A plant being nonnative is not enough reason to label it as necessary to remove. For a plant or animal to be labeled as invasive it must present some danger to the health of native species or ecosystems. The abundant seed production and allelopathic nature of Dame’s rocket are a few of the characteristics which qualify it as an invasive species. Similar to other members of the mustard family, a single second year plant can produce dozens of seed pods, each containing many more individual seeds. When released from the confinement of a garden, these seedlings have the potential to overwhelm native plants, thereby altering the composition of native environments. Another characteristic of Dame’s rocket that threatens native species is that it is allelopathic, meaning it has the ability to produce chemicals which stunt the growth of surrounding plants, potentially killing them. With the potential for overwhelming native populations (especially when it is found growing alongside garlic mustard) it is extremely important that Dame’s rocket is reduced in popularity as a yard plant and any that has escaped into surrounding areas is carefully removed.

The process of removing Dame’s rocket can be difficult, as it has a characteristic taproot that extends deep into the soil and makes it hard to pull by hand. One method for effectively removing small stands of this plant is to wait until a light rain has moistened the soil so that careful hand pulling can remove the entirety of the plant and its taproot. The plants should then be placed in a garbage bag that is tightly tied in order to prevent any sort of re-sprouting or further spread. For stands too large for removal of the complete plant, another method of control is to pull the seed pods off the plants and seal those in a plastic bag. This method of invasive species control has been utilized by MNA volunteers and interns at the Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in southwest Michigan. Removal of garlic mustard seed pods has reduced the spread of invasive plants and protected the variety of wildflowers, lichen, and trees which reside in the area.

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Dowagiac Woods Workday. Photo: Jeremy Emmi

Though each part of nature holds value and beauty, when an organism is brought outside of its natural habitat into a new environment it has the potential to disrupt the equilibrium of those already there. For this reason it is important that invasive species such as Dame’s rocket are discussed and prevented from spreading through stewardship work by organizations like the Michigan Nature Association, as well as sharing knowledge about this and other invasive species to allow the beauty of native ecosystems of Michigan to be conserved.

Species Spotlight: Kirtland’s Warbler

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

In some instances, the occurrence of a wildfire can mean devastation for species with restricted ranges and population; however, for one of Michigan’s rarest warblers, fires are crucial for building its niche habitat and sustaining the population. The Kirtland’s warbler is a member of the Parulidae or New World warbler family which measures about six inches in length and is distinguishable by the striking yellow plumage on its throat and breast and split white eye rings. As is the case with many of Michigan’s bird species, the Kirtland’s warbler nests in parts of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas during the summer months and makes the long journey to the south for the winter months – in this case a 1400 mile trip to the Bahamas. While it may seem as though this long-distance flight would be the toughest part of life as a Kirtland’s warbler, the largest challenge this population faces comes from its time up north.

KWbyRonAusting

Photo: Ron Austing

Although not immediately obvious by the forested landscapes known today, Michigan’s history is one of expansive barrens and frequent fires. Many grassland and barren species adapted to this cycle of burnings, one of which is the fire dependent jack pine tree. Heat is necessary to the lifecycle of the jack pine, as it promotes the tree’s cones to fully open and successfully germinate. With the suppression of fire, young stands of jack pine become less and less common and old stands grow dense and tall, losing their lower branches due to lack of sunlight. The degradation and succession of the jack pine ecosystem reasonably follows this lack of fire, but what was not suspected was the subsequent decline in the Kirtland warbler population.

According to the DNR, Kirtland’s warblers nest in young jack pines on branches that essentially touch the ground, where they can hide their nests among dense thickets of pine and grasses. In order for these conditions to occur, the pines must be young and small so that sunlight can reach the ground and keep the lower branches of the trees alive. This also requires the occurrence of frequent fires to remove older trees in exchange for the germination of their cones. Without these fires, the selective female warblers will refuse to nest and, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, only single male warblers will continue to live in the old, successional stands. Another major benefit of hiding nests in the lower branches of young jack pines is protection from the parasitic brown headed cowbird, which will remove warbler eggs from the nest and replace them with eggs of its own.

Today, with the importance of fire and the jack pine to Kirtland’s warbler populations known, effort is being placed to conserve this habitat and the warbler population. Several of MNA’s sanctuaries house populations of jack pine, including Redwyn’s Dunes Nature Sanctuary, and today birders can view this rare bird through tours given by the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team. According to the DNR, the best way to support this endangered species is to educate yourself and those around you through research or attending birding tours, as well as to donate to local organizations, like the Michigan Nature Association, dedicated to protecting and rebuilding the warbler population.