Sanctuary Spotlight: Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary

Those familiar with Michigan history will know of the bootlegging activities that took place on the shores of Lake Huron between Michigan and Canada during the Prohibition Era. Local Huron County lore tells of a place along this shore that was popular with bootleggers due to its limestone shoreline – ideal for speedboats looking to drop their loads quickly. This place was called Whiskey Harbor. Three miles to the north, the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse may have aided these bootleggers in locating Whiskey Harbor. Though not all completed their journey, as evidenced by several shipwrecks offshore, and neighbors having reported finding whiskey bottles washed up on shore.

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Leopard Frog at Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Jeff Ganley.

Though a cabin once dotted the landscape, this piece of land has never been developed; bypassed by major roadways like M-25, a dirt road was only extended near this property in 1957. Then, in October of 1989, MNA purchased the lot with a bequest of Mr. William J. Kernan, Jr.’s estate. The more than 45 acre Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary has protected critical wetland and shoreline habitat since that day, as well as protecting a piece of Michigan’s rich history.

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A group of visitors peer across Whiskey Harbor at the Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Katherine Hollins

Birders know the property as a great place to spot migratory and shore birds, as the mud flats provide ideal habitat for frogs, which some birds can feed on as they pass through. There is also an incredible amount of plant diversity between limestone cobble shore, the uplands of the southern mesic forest, and varying riparian land from a creek that runs through the sanctuary to Lake Huron.

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An 1837 Government Surveyor’s map of the area around Whiskey Harbor.

The Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary also offers researchers the opportunity to study how land use within a watershed affects coastal wetlands. MNA is proud to protect Michigan’s natural heritage with unique lands such as those found at Whiskey Harbor. You can learn more about this work, and find a sanctuary near you at michigannature.org.

Celebrating Bat Week 2019

by Sarah Royalty Pinkelman & Michigan Nature Association

Word has spread about the essential pollinating behavior of bees and the seed-spreading habit of birds, but the bat, the only flying mammal, is also a significant player in the ecology of animal and plant mutualism. In warmer climates, bats play a similar role as bees and hummingbirds, drinking nectar and pollinating blooms that produce fruits like the banana and agave. Colder climates like Michigan provide a home for insectivorous bat species that consume a significant number of insects that harm humans and plants alike.

Michigan has nine different bat species, but Michiganders most often encounter the little and big brown bats. We see them at dusk gulping insects at a voracious pace, eating from 600 to 1,000 per hour. A mother supporting her young can eat more than her body weight in insects in a single night.

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A big brown bat at the Leslie Science & Nature Center. Photo courtesy Sarah Royalty Pinkelman

In fact, bats such as big browns feed on specific mosquito species that are vectors for many diseases, including Eastern equine encephalitis. Michigan’s bats also help clear the air of corn and soybean crop–eating insects. While healthy bat populations save the farming industry billions of dollars a year in pesticide use, their benefit to Michigan’s ecology is priceless; by reducing the need for agricultural pesticides, eating disease-carrying insects, and holding a key spot in the nocturnal food web as predator and prey, they’re an integral part of a healthy ecosystem.

Like many species across the globe, bat numbers are declining. Two Michigan species are endangered (the northern long-eared and Indiana bat) and others may follow. A top threat is White-nose Syndrome (WNS), or Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Dr. Allen Kurta, an Eastern Michigan University researcher, has called it the most devastating wildlife disease North America has faced since European arrival. More than 6.7 million bats have been lost to the disease continent-wide since its arrival in New York in 2006. The disease repeatedly wakens hibernating bats, draining their energy in winter when there’s no food available. Most infected bats die from starvation. Dr. Kurta cites an 83% decline in bats since the arrival of WNS.

There are several ways to support our bat populations, and habitat protection is primary. For example, in winter bats hibernate in caves, structures, and abandoned mines, and it is vital to respect the signage at these sights. There are a number of steps you can take at home to help bats, learn more about these and International Bat Week at batweek.org.

The Michigan Nature Association works to protect habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species across the state. By protecting habitat for target species, we are benefiting the broader population of plants and animals that call Michigan home. Join us on October 24th, 2019 at the Red Cedar River Plant Preserve in Williamston, Michigan with a bat expert from the Bat Association of MSU for our Bat Week Walk, exploring what makes a good bat habitat, and learning more about this ecologically important species. For more information about this event, contact us at michigannature@michigannature.org or 866-223-2231.

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The Michigan Nature Association & Bat Association of MSU will be holding a Bat Week Walk at MNA’s Red Cedar River Plant Preserve on Thursday, October 24th, 2019.

Sanctuary Spotlight: Two Hearted River

Michigan’s Two Hearted River was made famous in the 1920s short story by Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River. As chronicled in the story, the river has historically provided excellent trout fishing opportunities. You may have even heard of the Michigan beer of the same name. The river is fed by five main tributaries – Dawson Creek, and the North, South, East, and West Branches, the last of which is where you will find MNA’s Two Hearted River Nature Sanctuary.

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The Two Hearted River meanders through the southern end of the Two Hearted River Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Rick Baetsen.

Located in the northwest section of Luce County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this very remote sanctuary protects a variety of rare plant and animal species and their habitat, such as the indian pipe flower, pitcher plant, moose, and pine martin.

Acquired in September 2000, this sanctuary was one of the last that MNA founder Bertha Daubendiek was involved in purchasing, and one that she felt passionately would be a beneficial addition to MNA’s statewide network of sanctuaries.

Surrounded to the east and south by The Nature Conservancy’s Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve, and to the north and west by Lake Superior State Forest, this MNA property protects dry northern forest, as well as hardwood conifer swamp habitat, both of which are listed as vulnerable natural communities with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Combined with these other conservation lands, MNA’s Two Hearted River Nature Sanctuary plays a role in protecting nearly 200,000 acres of unbroken land, and contributes to the overall health and diversity of the ecosystem.

Learn more about this and other sanctuaries at michigannature.org

Coastal Sanctuaries Protect Changing Shorelines

With ever-fluctuating weather conditions, and uncertainty in how climate change will affect water levels in the Great Lakes basin, the work that MNA is doing to protect habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species is now more important than ever.

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Volunteer Ashley Schilling uses her hand as a measurement for the dwarf lake iris.

One of several coastal sanctuaries that MNA currently maintains is the Spitler Shore Nature Sanctuary in Presque Isle County. This 50-acre sanctuary includes more than 1,500 feet of Lake Huron shoreline, and contains populations of the federally threatened dwarf lake iris. This sanctuary’s habitat, like much of the Great Lakes shoreline, is at risk from extreme and unpredictable fluctuations in water levels, affecting much more than just its magnificent sunrise views.

During the period between 1998 and 2012, Lakes Michigan and Huron experienced persistently low average water levels. This was due in large part to increased evaporation – to which the lakes are susceptible whenever they are not covered by ice. But the winter of 2013-14 brought extended periods of extreme cold, resulting in increased ice cover and protecting the lakes from the much of this evaporation. Since that time, all of the Great Lakes have risen to record-high average levels, the product of both limited evaporation, and heavy precipitation and runoff from the many rivers and streams that feed the lakes. Water levels in 2019 have proven to continue this trend of new record highs, with meteorologists having estimated a 10-inch rise on Lakes Michigan and Huron through July (representing 8 trillion gallons of water) – the lakes were recorded at 13 inches above their 2018 levels, by the end of June.

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Many shipwrecks and their associated debris were newly uncovered during this reduction and influx of water along the shorelines of Huron and Michigan. The photo here shows some of these shipwreck timbers which today rest peacefully once again underwater, discovered by a father and daughter from Camp Chickagami. Photo by John Porter.

These extremes have had profound effects on developed shoreline statewide, with much of Belle Isle being inundated with rising St. Clair River water, and roads in the Upper Peninsula at risk of eroding into Lake Superior. The impact on non-developed shoreline, like that found in Spitler Shore Nature Sanctuary, is yet to be realized, but it is now more clear than ever that these spaces need protecting, so that they can continue to support the diversity of plant and animal life required for a healthy ecosystem.

You can learn more about MNA’s statewide nature sanctuaries online at michigannature.org.

Understanding Conservation Impacts on Michigan’s Rare Turtles

MNA works every day to protect the most vulnerable plant and animal species in the state. Two recent projects of particular interest are the turtle surveys being conducted at MNA sanctuaries in the southern Lower Peninsula.

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Blanding’s turtle crossing a road near Lefglen Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Rachel Maranto.

The Blanding’s turtle is a Michigan species of special concern, due to the risk of habitat fragmentation. Because the Blanding turtles utilize a range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, they are especially impacted by the use of pesticides and the construction of roadways near wetlands, which causes fragmentation of the landscape at wetland complexes.

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Steward Rebecca Kenny holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

Spotted turtles are a Michigan threatened species, which have historically been found in the southern and western areas of the Lower Peninsula. These turtles prefer shallow wetland habitats, such as marshes and fens, and require clean water for their survival.

Both the Blanding and Spotted turtles are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for potential listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act; and both are considered vulnerable to climate change according to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. MNA Volunteers and Stewards have recently conducted preliminary surveys to better understand these species’ usage at several MNA sanctuaries. The initial Blanding’s turtle survey will determine where larger populations may exist within the MNA sanctuary system.

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Steward Dan Burton holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

It is important to continue gathering data on the habitats, plants, and animals that MNA works to protect, as monitoring helps to determine what methods and management techniques are working. MNA looks forward to these turtle surveys, and continuing to provide crucial habitat for these species in the southern Lower Peninsula.

Honoring Pollinators During National Pollinator Week

As some of you may know, pollinators come in all shapes and sizes – from well-known bees and butterflies, to birds and even bats. These animals are critical components in a healthy ecosystem, helping plants thrive and provide food to all members of the food chain. But many pollinators have been experiencing population decline in recent years, which prompted the designation of this week in June as “National Pollinator Week” – to recognize the important role pollinators play in our world, and to focus on ways to help support pollinator populations.

MNA is proud to be a part of protecting many pollinators in Michigan – a few of these species are detailed here.

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Poweshiek skipperling photo by Kelly Nail, USFWS

MNA works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to better understand the decline of the endangered Poweshiek skipperling – a small butterfly at risk of habitat loss due to agriculture and landscape development. The Poweshiek requires plants and soils normally found in prairie fen habitats, which are a vulnerable natural community in Michigan. This once abundant butterfly can now only be found in a handful of sites in the world, including at MNA Sanctuaries.

Bumble bees are some of the most recognizable pollinators in the world, and have been the predominantly referenced species in the fight to save pollinators. The Rusty-patched bumble bee is one of these that have experienced decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use. The Rust-patched bumble bee, named for the brownish-orange patch found on the backs of males and worker bees, requires grasslands and prairies with undisturbed soil for both food and housing. However, many of these areas in the Midwest have been converted to farmland and other developments, such as roads. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears.”

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Rusty-backed bumble bee photo by Kim Mitchell, USFWS

One of the larger pollinators that can be found in Michigan is the Swallowtail butterfly. Many varieties of the Swallowtail exist, some more common than others, but they all play a critical role in the process of plant reproduction. One unique sight in Michigan is groups of swallowtails foraging along damp or muddy sand, where they sip dissolved minerals and salts. They are also for their caterpillar’s defense mechanism – a pair of false eyes that form on the fore section of their body.

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Black swallowtail butterfly photo by Marianne Glosenger.

It is critical that we recognize the important role that pollinators play in our natural communities, and work to protect those habitats that are critical for the pollinators’ survival. There are many ways that you can help pollinators that extend beyond this important week, learn more at pollinator.org or pollinators.msu.edu and canr.msu.edu/pollinators_and_pollination.

Why We Burn

Sanctuary stewards in safety gear stand over a patch of scorched ground at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

Seán Mullett, Sam Brodley, and Lance Rogalski pause for a moment while conducting a prescribed burn at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

April is traditionally the peak of burn season in the land stewardship world. You’ve probably noticed more controlled/prescribed burn photos filling up your social media feed; people dressed in yellow, flames and smoke over charred ground. But for as much of the media coverage as these burns get, you don’t often see the stories behind the need for them.

Controlled burns can take place for a number of reasons – to treat and manage invasive species like autumn olive, or in some prairie environments, to prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching and crowding out essential sun-loving wildflowers and prairie plants. Over the past month, MNA stewards conducted prescribed burns at several of its sanctuaries, including Butternut Creek Sanctuary in Berrien County, the goal of which was to maintain the open grassland features of the prairie fen. Prairie fens are critical habitat for a high number of imperiled and declining species including the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest butterflies in the world; known only to exist in Midwestern fens that were created by the retreating glaciers. While the Mitchell’s Satyr has not been observed at this particular sanctuary for a number of years, maintaining healthy prairie fen communities like that found at Butternut Creek is essential to improving threatened, fen-dependent species across the state.

In an excerpt from MNA’s spring 2011 magazine, Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains:

Historically, fire crept through the understory of the forest, but did not necessarily ignite the mid- or upper-levels of the canopy as observed in the intense wildfires of recent times. Prior to human settlement, fire prevented shade-tolerant trees from populating oak-hickory forests, oak barrens and open communities. Without fire, trees like red maple, American beech, basswood and elm survive in the understory and fill gaps in the forest canopy.

As gaps are filled, less sunlight reaches the forest floor, making it impossible for shade-intolerant species like oak and hickory to grow. Herbaceous prairie and savanna species also become shaded out as trees become established. Slowly, the entire species composition of natural communities changes, and many species of plants and animals must find food and habitat elsewhere.

Prescribed fires have had significant and measurable results, such as restoring and protecting the habitat of the federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly. Without active management to keep these critical habitats healthy, these species and other habitat specialists like them would be at greater risk of decline.