Lake Michigan oil spill, Asian Carp, and the Washington landslide: this week in environmental news

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news stories related to conservation and the environment from all over the state and country. Here is some of what happened this week in environmental news:

BP more than doubles estimate of Lake Michigan oil spill (Chicago Tribune): On Monday, oil leaked from BP Plc’s Whiting refinery in Indiana into Lake Michigan. The latest estimate says that 1,638 gallons of oil spilled into the lake, more than double the estimate given immediately following the spill. Officials from the EPA say the spill likely poses no long-term risks to the lake.

St. Louis River Estuary restoration: Cleaning up the past (Great Lakes Echo): Local, state, federal and non-governmental organizations are banding together to help restore the St. Louis River Estuary. It has suffered major environmental problems since the 1800s when people began destroying and shaping the landscape to make way for shipping traffic. Collaborative efforts are being made to clean up the mess.

Experts say that hydrological separation is the best way at keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Experts say that hydrological separation is the best way at keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Roger Germann: Working to keep the Asian carp out of our Great Lakes (mlive): most experts agree that hydrological separation is the best way to keep the Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes. Roger Germann, executive vice president for Great Lakes and sustainability at the Shedd Aquarium, stated the long term key is prevention and that he thinks the invasive species issues should be looked at as a national issue.

Flood insurance rates rising: Database shows impact on Michigan communities (mlive):  At least 1.1 million policy holders nationwide and more than 14,000 in Michigan with government-subsidized insurance are expected to experience steadily rising rates in the coming years as the NFIP struggles with debt created by a series of storms. Exactly how high the rates will go is undetermined.

Elusive Whale Sets New Record for Depth and Length of Dives Among Mammals (National Geographic): A new study of Curvier’s beaked whales shows that they can dive to nearly 10,000 feet. Scientists are interested in these whales because sonar activity had stranded individuals on beaches. They studied them by attaching trackers to eight whales in southern California and followed them for several months.

Danger Lingers After Landslide Kills 8 in Washington State (New York Times): A landslide that slid down from a rain-saturated mountain slope left eight people dead and at least 18 missing in Washington State. The slide reduced homes to shattered fragments and buried a state highway. Many people spent Saturday night in an emergency shelter for those who had to evacuate their homes.



Springtime Brings Bird Watching

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

Now that spring is finally here and signs of warmer weather are in the air, birds will soon return north. We thought we would feature a few birds that can be seen throughout Michigan this spring. Keep a sharp eye out for them this season!

American Bittern

The American Bittern. Photo by Jerry Segraves via Wikimedia Commons

The American Bittern. Photo by Jerry Segraves via Wikimedia Commons

This well-camouflaged heron is difficult to see amongst the dense reed beds, but its distinct booming call carries far and can be heard throughout the marsh at dawn and dusk. This stocky heron is streaked with tan, brown and white over its body. Accentuating the plumage are darker wings and flight feathers, a black face and long neck streaks. The American Bittern has a three foot wingspan, but it only weighs about one pound.

The American Bittern breeds in wetlands across much of Canada and the northern half of the United States. They inhabit large, reedy wetlands and shallow freshwater marshes. Their camouflage makes the bird extremely difficult to see as it wades and stalks through the cattails and reeds. When alarmed, the bittern freezes with its head, neck and bill pointing straight up, making it become one with the reeds and almost impossible to see.

Pied-billed Grebe

A pied-billed grebe. Photo by Linda Tanner via Wikimedia Commons

A pied-billed grebe. Photo by Linda Tanner via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied-billed Grebe is a small, stocky and short-necked waterbird that measures only 11 to 15 inches in total length. They are dark brown with a black throat patch and the sides of their necks and flanks are grayish. Their tail is a tuft of sort wispy feathers of white. Their name comes from their pied, or two-colored, bill which is bluish-white with a distinct black vertical bar on either side. The bill is short, laterally compressed and slightly hooked downwards.

The Pied-billed Grebe is the most widely distributed grebe in the Americas. They breed in permanent ponds and marshes and require dense stands of deep water vegetation, such as cattail, for nesting and cover.  This bird is very secretive and is generally heard more than it is seen. they are most vocal during breeding season in late April and May. Their vocal array consists of a repeated series of soft and slow to start caow caow notes that build in volume and speed, followed by a series of long, wining kaooo notes.

Cooper’s Hawk

A Cooper's Hawk. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

A Cooper’s Hawk. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

The Cooper’s Hawk is a crow sized raptor that is found across the United States. This raptor is the scourger of the backyard bird feeder. They are 14 to 21 inches in length and have a wingspan from 27 to 36 inches. The eyes of the Cooper’s Hawk are large and yellow and a deep red. They have a black cap and a hooked bill that is well adapted for tearing flesh from their prey. Their tail is a distinct part of the breed, which can be identified by several dark bands and a white band at its tip. The white breast and belly of the hawk are crossed with reddish bars.

The Cooper’s Hawk is seen mostly flying with quick, consecutive wing beats and a short glide, though they may also soar. they occur in various types of mixed deciduous forests and open woodland throughout Michigan.


 Red-winged Blackbird

A male red-winged blackbird perches in a tree. Photo by Geoff Gallice via WIkimedia Commons

A male red-winged blackbird perched in a tree. Photo by Geoff Gallice via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most abundant birds across North America, the Red-winged Blackbird is a familiar sight sitting atop cattails and reeds. This stocky bird has broad shoulders with a slender, conical bill. Red-winged Blackbirds often show a hump-backed silhouette while perched and males often sit with their tail slightly flared. They can be found in fresh and saltwater marshes, along watercourses and drier meadows.

These birds are often hard to mistake if you are looking at a male. They have a jet black glossy coat with scarlet and yellow shoulder patches that they puff up or hide depending on the situation. They do everything they can to gain attention; they sit on high perches and belt their song all day. Females, which are subdued in color and are streaky brown with a paler breast and whitish eyebrow, stay lower and hidden through the vegetation while weaving their nests.

This spring, MNA is hosting a number of birding events for members and guests to enjoy. Be sure to check out some some out this season! For more information about these events, visit

April 21 – Exploration Hike at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary

April 25 – Whitefish Point Spring Fling

April 27 – Birding Hike at Columbia Nature Sanctuary

Chickadee mating zone, spring flooding and a climate change app: this week in environmental news

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news stories relating to the environment and conservation from around the state and country. Here is some of what happened this week in environmental news.

California officials prepare for worst as historic drought deepens wildfire risk (The Guardian): According to figures compiled by California’s department of forestry and fire protection, the state has had 665 wildfires since January 1, which is about three times the average for this time of the year. Disaster funds are being set aside for “mega-fires” across the western states.

Emergency officials brace for floods from snow, warmth (Great Lakes Echo): Chances of Michigan communities reaching flood level this time of year are as high as 90 percent. County officials are making sure they have enough sandbags to block flooding and that they are prepared to shelter people if they need to evacuate their homes. The chance of flooding depends on a balance of time, temperature and rainfall.

Two closely related species of chickadees meet, mate and give birth to hybrids. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Two closely related species of chickadees meet, mate and give birth to hybrids. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Chickadee Mating Zone Surges North (The New York Times): There is a narrow strip of territory from Kansas to New Jersey where two related species of chickadees meet and mate to form hybrid birds. Scientists are reporting that this zone is moving north at a rate that correlates with the warming trend.

White House Launches Website App to Visualize Climate Change (National Geographic): The White House unveiled a new website- based app to help explain the science behind climate change. It will help give communities the information and tools to plan for current and future impacts. The first batch of climate data released will focus on coastal flooding and sea-level rise.

New permits allow fish net pens (Great Lakes Echo): A proposal has been launched to allow nonprofit groups to place net pens in Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and their tributaries to increase the population of fish for recreational anglers. As of now, Michigan and New York are the only two states that allow these pens. Prior to the permits, the law did not allow fish farms and the pens would be considered illegal if fish were kept longer than two days.

From the Archives: Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary

Every Sanctuary Has a Story: Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary

By Dave Wendling, Published April 2009 in the Michigan Nature Association Newsletter

Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary is a living example of how the forests were when the first settlers came to Michigan. The sanctuary is a spectacular natural area because the majority of the property has never been plowed or clear-cut, there is an incredible species diversity. Wildflowers, trees, birds, and other animals flourish here, and the great size of the woods is a factor vital to their survival. Thanks to a 150-acre addition in 2008, the sanctuary is now the largest in the Lower Peninsula.

Plants flourish at Dowagiac Woods in countless numbers, with more than 50 species of wildflowers that bloom in the spring. Here is a plant community that shows what a forest floor free from human development looks like.

Nearly 50 species of trees have been found, and at least 49 different types of birds nest here. The woods is also a haven for nine plants and animals classified as in danger of becoming extinct in Michigan.

Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanct

Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary

Since Michigan became a state in 1837, Dowagiac Woods has experienced only two major alterations. In the early 1840’s, the Dowagiac River, which runs along the sanctuary’s southeast boundary, was channeled and straightened. Prior to the channelization, there were many meanders of the river. Today, one remains as “Crescent Pond”, which can be seen at the north end of the River Trail.

The other change was the selective cutting of timber. This began in the early 1940’s and ended in 1961. Fortunately, the owner Joseph Jerue, selectively logged the woods and used teams of horses to pull the logs out to a sawmill that was located where the pines are currently standing north of the parking lot.

The woods have never been plowed or grazed, nor has it been planted except for the pines and some other trees around the parking lot. It is said that the pines were planted to serve as a barrier to hunters who were in the habit of driving their Model T’s into the woods to shine deer at night.

There have also been a few minor disturbances. Square Pond was created by the Standard Oil Company and was used for water when they drilled for oil in the late 1930’s – early 1940’s. The company never found oil, but hit a brine well which spouted out onto the woods. Some of the brine settled in depressions in the woods and killed the plants and trees growing there. It took years before things began growing again. The well, located southwest of Square Pond, has since been capped.

Dowagiac Woods was well known by Isaac “Ike” Hunter, a local farmer and naturalist. He was a birder and belonged to the Cass County Audubon Society. He was also a member of the Michigan Nature Association, and when the property came up for sale he notified the Michigan Nature Association. He knew its significance and that the blue-eyed Mary grew there.

nodding trillium - trillium cernuum - al menk

Nodding trillium at the sanctuary. Photo by Al Menk.

In MNA’s book “In Retrospect” Bertha Daubendiek, one of MNA’s founders, reminisced:
“It was my privilege in 1981, as we were studying the woods before acquisition, to visit it every weekend for six weeks from the last of March through the first of May. It was an exciting and uplifting experience I have never forgotten. At first a green fuzz appeared everywhere on the ground. Somewhere else, this would have turned into grass, but it soon became apparent that at Dowagiac Woods every tuft of green was topped by a wildflower bud. The progression was slow but steady, until everywhere there were flowers, all jammed together. Some other woods have two peaks of bloom, in April and in the middle of May. But not at Dowagiac. No matter what day you go in that six weeks’ period, blooms are everywhere.”

On January 3, 1983, the Michigan Nature Association purchased 220 acres of this fabulous property.

The Cass County Audubon Society played a very important role in both the fundraising and in the care of Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary. They held various fundraisers to raise money to buy a section of the woods. They were not alone in this effort – residents of Cass County raised 20% of the money needed to purchase the sanctuary, quite an accomplishment during hard economic times.

“Titmouse Tales”, the official minutes of the Cass County Audubon Society wrote in 1982:
“July brought a lot of extra activity on the Dowagiac Woods Project as Bertha Daubendiek cracked her whip and we jumped into action. Isaac Hunter became a qualified tour guide, Carl Biek became chief engineer and recruited help in building a bridge across the creek, Gene Fuessle recruited help from his students who helped as guides and in any way they could, Frank McKaye became so involved in lecturing and showing film strips that Millie almost divorced him on grounds of desertion, Ann and Naomi Biek took care of registration and the distributing of fact materials and became an accomplished trail hiker. Other members did their part by providing articles to be raffled off at our meetings, and Gretchen Lenz was invaluable at plant identification. The monthly raffles continue to bring money toward our pledge for the woods.”

The Audubon Society formed a Care Committee that became involved in maintaining the trails, building boardwalks and making bridges. The committee often led groups of local Boy Scouts on work days and one of the scouts constructed the largest bridge at the sanctuary as an Eagle Scout project. The bridge crosses a tributary of the Dowagiac River that was named “Hunter’s Creek” in honor of Ike Hunter after his untimely death.