Two-headed sharks, terns, green jobs and bear cubs: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Each Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental stories from around the state and country. Here are six of this week’s stories on science and the environment:

Michigan State study discovers world’s first recorded two-headed bull shark (MLive): A group of scientists led by Michigan State University confirmed the discovery of the world’s first-ever two-headed bull shark. The creature was found on April 7, 2011, and was confirmed by the study to be a single shark with two heads, not conjoined twins. Michael Wagner, assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at MSU, said scientists need to find many more instances of two-headed sharks before they can draw any conclusions about what caused it.

Common tern

A common tern. Photo by Andreas Trepte. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

A Tern for the Better: The Detroit River Comeback (Metromode): Two common tern chicks hatched on Belle Isle last summer, marking the return of the bird after 50 years. A recreated nesting habitat was created and monitored by Greg Norwood and other environmental scientists working with the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the only international environmental collaboration in North America. Norwood and the other scientists celebrated the tern’s return for a variety of reasons: Terns are indicators of environmental health, and collect contaminants in their fat tissue from the fish they eat that can be used to identify concentrations of contaminants like PCBs in the water. In addition, the re-establishment of the tern and other bird and fish species shows the refuge’s ability to create habitat that nurtures threatened species.

Green jobs grow again after dip (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan became one of the fastest-growing states for environmental employment in 2012, even after losing 3 percent of its green jobs the year before. According to Environmental Entrepreneurs, Michigan was among the top 10 states for environmental job growth last year, as the state added 19 projects and about 3,700 jobs. Manufacturing is the largest green sector in Michigan’s economy, followed by construction and administrative and waste services. The other top 10 states in 2012 were California, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut, Arizona, New York, Texas and Oregon.

CSI: Invasives (Great Lakes Echo): Researchers in the Great Lakes region are using new DNA techniques to track down and control the spread of invasive species. The researchers search for DNA of an invader in the environment using techniques that may help them understand how these species enter the Great Lakes basin. Many of these recent studies are funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and aim to refine already existing environmental DNA technology so new techniques and applications can be made.

Bear cub petting is back: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs bill to benefit Upper Peninsula ranch (MLive): Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation that amends Michigan’s Large Carnivore Act to allow public contact with bears up to 90 pounds and 36 weeks old. This new law benefits Oswald’s Bear Ranch in the Upper Peninsula, which previously financed its bear rescue operation by allowing paying customers to sit with cubs in a staging area and take photographs of the interaction. Several organizations opposed the legislation, saying that bears of any size or age can pose a threat to humans. Dean Oswald, who owns Oswald’s Bear Ranch with his wife, said that he has operated for 15 years without a serious customer injury.

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MSU Students Make a Difference at Goose Creek Grasslands

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Where would you expect to find a group of about 30 college and graduate students on cold, snowy Saturday morning in mid-February? If the group is Dr. Emily Grman’s restoration ecology class, you might find them at MNA’s Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary. While some of their classmates were still lying warmly in bed, Dr. Grman’s students were wielding loppers, pruning saws, and PVC herbicide applicators against glossy buckthorn to further the restoration of the prairie fen at Goose Creek.

Restoration at Goose Creek has been a lengthy progress. In 2003, MNA’s former stewardship director Sherri Laier began efforts by removing glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from along the Cement City Highway. The shrub had colonized a spoil pile from a drainage improvement project and had already aggressively invaded portions of the fen. The shrub grows rapidly, produces many berries, and both shades out native vegetation as well as preventing the accumulation of enough fuel to carry a fire.

Fire is the main process by which prairie fens were maintained in earlier times. Fires set by Native Americans would spread from surrounding uplands (usually oak savanna) into the fen, and rejuvenate the rich layer of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers that make prairie fens both picturesque as well as biologically rich. Fire also sets back shrubs, both native and non-native, which, absent periodic disturbance, will tend to expand in fens.

MNA conducted the first prescribed burn at Goose Creek in 2004, after native vegetation bounced back in the space previously occupied by glossy buckthorn. Since then, nine additional prescribed burns have been conducted, covering most of the sanctuary.

In early April of this year, two more burns are planned at Goose Creek. One of those burns will take place where the MSU students were hard at work clearing buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Glossy buckthorn is killed by cutting the shrub near to the ground, and then applying concentrated herbicide to the stem, which is taken to the roots. This is a precise method of delivering herbicide to the plant. The cut buckthorn branches are collected in piles which can be burned either separately or during a prescribed burn.

Students were rewarded with a nice harbinger of Spring – the cry of sandhill cranes – despite the cold temperatures. Students also saw bluebirds, horned larks, and abundant praying mantis egg cases. Several students expressed interest in helping with the prescribed burns.

MNA’s regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz would like to thank the students for helping out at Goose Creek, Dr. Grman for organizing the trip, and regular volunteers Eugene Lidster, Ken Ross, Mike Roys and Heather Smith, who helped form the students into effective restoration strike teams.

The group after a hard day's work!

MNA expects to conduct prescribed burns at Goose Creek in early April. With usual weather conditions (rain in April) the process occurrs surprising rapidly, with the most obvious evidence of a prescribed burn gone just two weeks after the burn takes place. The sanctuary is worth a visit any time, but it is especially rewarding to observe the resurgence of native vegetation from a blackened landscape.

Dr. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral associate in Lars Brudvig’s lab at MSU, interested in the restoration of Michigan prairies. In an upcoming blog post, she will write about her research comparing the plant diversity at prairie remnants (some of which included MNA sanctuaries) to prairie reconstructions.

Join MNA for the 25th annual WPBO Spring Fling

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Just as birds migrate north when winter becomes spring, so will Whitefish Point Observatory members, MNA members and their guests—although their migration only lasts a weekend—as they head to Whitefish Point for the 25th annual WPBO Spring Fling. This weekend of birding activities from April 26-28 gives attendees a chance to learn more about avian migration and conservation in the Great Lakes from fellow birders, field trip leaders and guest speakers.

A Great Gray Owl. Photo by Marian Szengel. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Spring Fling features two main workshops on Saturday that teach participants about Great Gray Owls and some local bird species in the Whitefish Point area. Other special events include a talk on piping plover monitoring, bird walks around the point, and owl viewings at dusk and dawn. There are also optional pre- and post-Fling field trips: Birding in Paradise on April 26 and Searching for Spruce Grouse on April 28. Visit the WPBO website for a detailed events schedule.

This year’s banquet speaker is Alicia King, communications coordinator and Urban Bird Treaty coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Program. Alicia was the director of the Bird Conservation Alliance at American Bird Conservatory before joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, served as a host on the “BirdWatch” T.V. program for PBS and hosted the Bird Feature segment on “Discover the Wild” for Wyoming PBS. She is the author of the Orvis Beginners Guide to Birdwatching and has written several book chapters, educational brochures and magazine articles. And, to add to her avian experience, she currently serves on the board for the American Ornithologists Union Committee on Conservation.

Always something new

Spring Fling Chair Mary Wise’s favorite part of the event is that you never know what you’re going to get from the weather or the birds.

“It can be anything from freezing cold to 70s and sunny, and the birds just don’t care,” she said.

Spring Fling birdwatchers a few years ago saw a snowy owl—a species that only visits Michigan in the winter—and an avocet—a southern and western shorebird that doesn’t regularly appear in Michigan, especially in April—on the same stretch of beach in the same day. They didn’t see any incredibly rare birds two years ago, but they did have a strong hawk migration all weekend and witnessed a flight on Sunday with at least 13 hawk species.

Mary added that there’s something for everyone, whether they’re experienced birders or just beginning.

“If people are already into birdwatching, it’s a great place to hang out and see some really good birds,” she said. “If they are new, well, it’s a great place to hang out and learn birds! There’s always something to look at there.”

Registration is $25 for adults and $12.50 for children for Saturday workshops only. All participants must be registered by April 16. Contact Adrienne Bozic for more information at abozic@michigannature.org.

Beavers, Ducks Unlimited, sea lamprey, disappearing ice: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Charlie Eshbach.

Unfinished business: skis and a sanctuary (Mining Gazette): Outdoors columnist Dan Schneider paid a visit to MNA’s Black Creek Nature Sanctuary in Keweenaw County. He wasn’t able to use his cross-country skis during his entire hike along Black Creek’s narrow, winding trails and varied terrain, but he called the sanctuary “a worthwhile hike in any season.”

Yes, beaver making a comeback along Detroit, Rouge rivers (Detroit Free Press): Beavers, once native to Michigan before they were nearly wiped out by fur trading, are making a comeback. A beaver was spotted at the DTE Conners Creek power plant in Detroit in 2009—roughly a century since the last beaver was seen in the state—and evidence suggests beavers are multiplying along several points of the Detroit and Rouge rivers and might be making a sustained comeback to the area.

Michigan Legislature OKs Ducks Unlimited license plate bills (MLive): Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that allows the state to create specialty vehicle license plates to raise money for Ducks Unlimited and wetland conservation efforts. According to Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, “This bill will help continue Ducks Unlimited’s conservation mission by enabling the organization to raise funds to help with education and increase awareness regarding wetland habitat conservation in Michigan.”

Genetic mapping of sea lamprey may control invader and improve human health (Great Lakes Echo): A team of scientists are attempting to find another way to control the sea lamprey, an invasive species that has terrorized the Great Lakes since the 1800s. Sea lampreys are harmless during the early years of their life cycle, but as they mature, they turn into parasites that prey on large species of Great Lakes fish. By studying the sea lamprey genome, scientists are hoping to control the sea lamprey’s life cycle and prevent the lampreys from transforming into their harmful states. This research has potential benefits for humans, as well: it may also include a cure for biliary atresia, a rare disease in which affected human newborns are born without a bile duct.

Disappearing ice spells uncertain future for Lake Superior (Great Lakes Echo): A new study found that ice on Lake Superior has decreased by 79 percent since 1973, and overall ice on the Great Lakes has fallen by 71 percent in the last 40 years. Ice loss can contribute to lower lake levels, more lake-effect snow, higher shoreline erosion rates, and an overall increase in lake water temperature. There is no clear cause for this decline, but a variety of factors—such as global climate change—are considered likely.

Learn photography skills with MNA and Great Lakes Photo Tours

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

In March and September, MNA members and guests will learn to shoot—photos, that is. MNA is partnering with Great Lakes Photo Tours for the second One-Day Eco-Photo Excursions at Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary on May 13 and Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary on September 20. Participants will learn more about their cameras and sharpen their photography skills at the two all-day events, which begin at 10 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.

The tours are led by naturalist photographer Mark S. Carlson and digital photography instructor Bob Grzesiak, who have a combined 50 years of professional expertise in photography. Mark has had photographs published in magazines, books, calendars and other various publications and offers a wealth of photography and naturalist knowledge, while Bob is an expert in digital camera systems and technology and can help participants understand the nitty-gritty controls and settings on their cameras.

The first tour is on May 13 at the Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in Cass County. Dowagiac Woods stretches for 364 acres and is the largest sanctuary in the Lower Peninsula. This sanctuary gives photographers a living example of what forests were like when settlers first came to Michigan, as the majority of the property has never been plowed or clear-cut, which allows for great species diversity. More than 50 wildflower species grow in Dowagiac Woods and will be blooming—and ready to photograph—during the tour.

Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary in Lenawee County, the site for the second tour, is smaller than Dowagiac Woods, but offers its own sights and beauty for tour attendees. Goose Creek is a unique prairie fen found only in the glacial Midwest. The sanctuary is nestled in a valley and boasts a variety of habitats, including saturated soil, wet prairie, marsh and fen. It’s also home to roughly 221 plant species and comes to its full glory in September and October. Photographers on this tour will be able to spot turkeyfoot grass, the most important Michigan tall grass, which flowers profusely in September and October.

To register, visit the Great Lakes Photo Tours website and select one or both of the MNA tours. The program is $65 for MNA members and $99 for non-members. The $99 fee includes a one-year MNA membership. For more information, call the MNA office at 866-223-2231.

Great Lakes cleanup plans, loon deaths, and The Biggest Week in American Birding: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here are six articles you might’ve missed during the past two weeks:

Gray Wolf

Wolf management is one of the natural resource policy issues Michigan faces this year. Photo by the Seney Natural History Association. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Outdoors: Key issues to keep an eye on (Detroit Free Press): Michigan faces some stormy natural resource policy issues this year. The state must answer questions on who should pay for Michigan’s natural resources and how these funds can be supplemented; whether legislators, private citizens or biologists should dictate wildlife decisions; wolf management in general; and if quality deer management principles will be applied to the state’s herd.

Bill removing biodiversity, restoration as DNR goals clears Michigan Senate (Detroit Free Press): A bill that would remove biodiversity and restoration from Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ forest management goals passed the state Senate on March 5 on a 26-11 party-line vote. The bill now goes to the state House of Representatives and will likely first be considered in the House Natural Resources Committee. Environmental groups believe the bill would hurt Michigan’s wildlife and natural resources and diminish the value of the state’s public lands in the future.

Feds making long-range Great Lakes cleanup plans (MLive): The Obama administration is planning to continue a long-range Great Lakes cleanup program and will begin work this summer on a new five-year blueprint for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. According to the Associated Press, “the program is designed to make progress on some of the Great Lakes’ biggest ecological problems, such as invasive species and toxic hot spots.” The government will make decisions about paying for the cleanup program on a year-by-year basis.

Scientists blame invasive species in loon deaths (Traverse City Record-Eagle): Roughly 900 loons died while migrating south across Lake Michigan last summer, and scientists think invasive zebra and quagga mussels are to blame. Zebra and quagga mussels filter the water so it’s very clear, allowing algae to grow and eventually creating an oxygen-free environment and ideal home for bacteria that produce toxic botulism. This toxin is ingested by worms and freshwater shrimp, which are eaten by the fish that are then eaten by loons. Scientists are searching for ways to break this link before more loons are killed.

Lake Erie shoreline shapes up as test for birds and energy (Great Lakes Echo): Businesses along the western Lake Erie shoreline are getting ready for The Biggest Week in American Birding, 10-day birding festival scheduled for May 3-12. Tom Henry, the author of the column, says birding plays a part in the future of energy production and the environment. He adds that The Biggest Week in American Birding is “a showcase for how educational and business programs can be more effective working in combination with each other, from ferry shuttles to guest lectures.”

Northern Leopard Frog

The Northern Leopard Frog is one of 13 frog and toad species in Michigan. Photo by Douglas Wilhelm Harder. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Northern Michigan Outdoors: Frogs & Toads Leaping Toward Spring (MyNorth): As winter turns into spring, Michigan residents can hear springtime birds chirping, watch the snow melting, and listen for frogs and toads trilling. Frogs and toads are good indicators of environmental quality and are monitored by the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division each spring. The surveys are conducted by a mix of professional and non-professional volunteers, who learn to identify calls for Michigan’s 13 frog and toad species. Each survey spot is examined three times in the spring and early summer.

MNA Acquires New Sanctuary in St. Joseph County

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

MNA acquired a new sanctuary! The new sanctuary, Hidden Oaks Nature Sanctuary in St. Joseph County, protects 42 acres of emergent marsh, tamarack swamp, and sedge-dominant wet meadow. The site was chosen for its wetland values and will help protect the Flowerfield Creek riparian corridor.

Hidden Oaks is located in northwest St. Joseph County, just west of the confluence of Spring Creek and Flowerfield Creek. Almost the entire sanctuary is wetland, aside from the northwest corner, which contains a dry-mesic southern forest and a small, upland hill.

Hidden Oaks Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Andy Bacon.

Hidden Oaks Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Andy Bacon.

Hidden Oaks provides various natural services to the environment. The sanctuary protects water quality along Flowerfield Creek, provides floodwater storage during periods of high water, and is a source of wildlife habitat.

Hidden Oaks’ natural features currently face two threats: invasive species and habitat transition. Invasive species found in the sanctuary include reed canary grass, phragmites, and invasive shrubs. In addition, the absence of fire and other disturbance at the sanctuary is allowing the open, sedge-dominated wet meadow areas of the sanctuary to transition to shrub-dominated areas. If this continues, the micro-habitat provided by the tussock sedge will be lost, along with much of the forb diversity.

MNA stewards plan to minimize the encroachment of shrubs and protect wetland diversity through a burn regime and treating all invasive shrubs. They also plan to get a better understanding of the sanctuary’s ecology by conducting botanical and wildlife surveys in the coming year.

Hidden Oaks is a Class C sanctuary, which means that visitors should get authorization from the MNA office, regional stewardship organizer or steward before visiting the sanctuary.

For information about other MNA sanctuaries, check out the MNA website.