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.

rattlesnake

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.

Saw-Whet Owl Banding at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary

The Michigan Nature Association recently hosted a project to track saw-whet owl migration at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County. The project leader and head owl bander was Selena Creed, who has years of experience banding raptors in the Mackinac Straits.

Saw-whet owl migration routes are well-documented along the Great Lakes shoreline, but the routes they take through inland Michigan are less understood. Given that the Sharonville State Game Area and surrounding wooded complex (which includes Lefglen) represents one of the largest contiguous habitat blocks in southeast Michigan, researchers believe it was likely they would be moving through here if they travel inland.

This year a total of 13 saw-whet owls were captured across five nights using mist nets and an audio lure. This is more than enough to prove that saw-whets are using Lefglen Nature Sanctuary and the larger surrounding habitat complex as an inland migration route through Michigan!

Selena and the team examined mostly female and hatch year owls, but were treated to a couple second year/after second year/male owls as well. One owl was a recapture that had been banded earlier this fall at Hillardton Marsh, Ontario – Selena states that recaptures are somewhat rare.

Thank you to Gary Hofing for taking very high-quality photos that provide great documentation of the banding process and measurements/data collected from each bird, including how they are aged using a blacklight to see wing molt pattern.

What are migratory bird stopover sites?

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

A flock of migrating birds. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A flock of migrating birds. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When birds migrate to warmer climates, their long distance travel requires them to take frequent breaks to rest and refuel in order to complete their long journey. Just like people need to make pit stops for food and rest during long car rides, birds need places along the way that provide areas with food, water and shelter from the weather and predators. These sites are known as stopovers and they are essential for bird migrations. Areas like woods, wetlands and beaches with an adequate amount of food and shelter help the species survive and migrate from year to year. The Great Lakes area provide important stopover sites for waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors and owls.

There are three types of stopover sites for birds and each one serves an important purpose for migration. They are fire escapes, convenience stores and full-service hotels.

Fire escapes

Fire escape stopovers sites that receive less use because they are lacking in food and other resources but they are essential during high stress situations. These areas are typically small isolated patches of habitat. They can be a city park, a small island on the Great Lakes, a freighter, a docked boat or a lighthouse. Birds use these fire escapes when they need a short term break break from flying due to bad weather or predators.

Convenience stores

Convenience stores sites that are larger than fire escapes, such as a county park and forested patches in cities. They provide a limited source of shelter and food, but enough for birds to take a short rest and eat enough to gain energy to continue their migration.

Full-service hotels

Full-service hotels are sites where migrating birds can rest fully for several days and load up on food without a risk of predators. They are extensive, intact areas that are rich in resources with a diverse array of habitats that can house a large number of birds. Examples of full-service hotels are state or national parks, expansive forests, national wildlife refuges or state wildlife areas.

Winter Lovers: Dark Eyed Junco

By Stephanie Bradshaw, MNA Volunteer

Dark-eyed Junco  © Gary Mueller, MO, Rolla, February 2007

Dark-eyed Junco
© Gary Mueller, MO, Rolla, February 2007

It might be surprising that anyone would love the cold and snow of a Michigan winter, but it is the perfect climate for the Dark Eyed Junco. As the Robin is a symbol of the coming Spring, the Dark Eyed Junco could be called a symbol of winter. A type of sparrow slightly bigger than the ordinary house finch, Michiganders will often see these gray birds with white undersides at their feeders but only with a backdrop of snow. The slate-colored breed is the type of Junco that people in the Eastern states see only in the winter months. Dark-eyed Juncos can be found throughout the United States and Canada at different seasons. They are one of the most common birds in North America with an estimated population of 630 million individuals.

Why does the Junco appear only in the winter?             

Juncos, like many other birds, migrate “South” for the winter months; however, lower Michigan is their South. These little birds live in Canada for the rest of the year and come down to lower parts of America only in the winter. Juncos are commonly found in coniferous and deciduous forests, but during winter migration they may journey to woodlands and fields.

Where do Juncos build their nests?

Juncos prefer their nests lower to the ground: in a depression, rock ledge, or roots of upturned trees. However, these birds easily adapt, and around people they may place their nest in or under buildings, in window ledges, flower pots, or light fixtures. The females weave the nests out of pine needles, grass, and sometimes small twigs. The birds may incorporate mosses, hairs, and leaves into the nests as well. They rarely reuse nests, so they will build a new nest at each of their destinations.

What do Juncos eat?

Seeds of chickweed, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, and sorrel are the Juncos’ favorites. At the feeders they will pick out the millet and leave the sunflower seeds. They also eat insects such as beetles, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, ants, wasps, and flies.

If you see a Junco, be sure to say hello and enjoy his presence because when it starts to warm up he will be heading North in search of cooler regions.

Did you see any Juncos this winter? 

Fascinating Frozen Wood Frogs

By Stephanie Bradshaw, MNA Volunteer

Wood Frog. Photo: Jim Harding/Michigan DNR

Wood Frog. Photo: Jim Harding/Michigan DNR

As the cold winds and icy showers come over the land, many animals migrate and others find a warm spot to curl up with full stomachs for a long winter nap. For Michigan, temperatures can get so cold that we often joke that one would freeze solid just by stepping outside, and that is exactly what our friend the wood frog does to survive the winter.

How do they freeze themselves?

Wood frogs are able to live farther north than any other type of frog. How do they handle the freezing temperatures? As the temperatures cool, the frogs bury themselves in the mud. As the ground freezes, the water in their body pools into their center, around their vital organs, and they freeze solid. These frogs are as hard as stones or bricks of ice. The frogs exhibit no sign of life: they do not breathe, they do not even have a heartbeat. But, they are not dead. Scientists call this “suspended animation.”

Freezing can cause many severe damages such as dehydration, cell damage, and punctured blood vessels. To avoid damages, the wood frog floods its systems with a sugary, glucose substance that retains the cells’ water and prevents cells from freezing. So while the frog allows freezing to occur around the cells and organs, the glucose protects the cells from the damages of freezing.

How do they thaw themselves?

For reasons still unknown to scientists, wood frogs are able to thaw themselves in the spring. Even more amazing, they thaw from the inside out, their vital organs becoming active in perfect timing so that the frog can regain full life. This process of coming back to life takes one or two days.

After the frogs have warmed up, they are ready to begin their mating season. Since the ground thaws before the lakes and ponds, wood frogs are the first frogs to awaken in the spring. Mating earlier than other species gives them an advantage for their youth to grow and mature before summer begins.

Possible Applications for Humans

The blood sugar that the frogs use to secure their organs and cells is the same blood sugar as all other vertebrate animals, including humans. With more research into the secrets of the wood frog, scientists may discover ways of storing and reviving organs without damage to tissues, managing blood sugar for diabetics, and treating people after strokes and heart attacks where their blood ceased to flow.

Butterflies to look for in Michigan

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

It’s almost hard to believe that a tiny, graceful creature could fly out of a cocoon. Yet every year, the butterfly continues its phenomenon, metamorphosing from a mere bumbling, crawling caterpillar into a sleek, graceful winged insect.

A butterfly’s life

A monarch butterfly emerges from its cocoon. Photo courtesy of kids.britannica.com.

A monarch butterfly emerges from its cocoon. Photo courtesy of kids.britannica.com.

The butterfly begins its life in a small ovoid-shaped egg, developing into a caterpillar. The caterpillar grows and hatches out of its egg and must start eating in order to grow. The caterpillar sheds its smaller skin a few times during growth before it begins the “pupa” stage.It forms the chrysalis, the cocoon formed around its body to undergo metamorphosis. The final stage is when the newly formed butterfly emerges from its cocoon, no longer a ground-anchored insect.

For more details about the butterfly’s life cycle click here.

Here are some butterflies common to Michigan, that can be spotted while enjoying Michigan’s nature.

White Admiral

The White Admiral has a 2.25-4 inch wingspan and has a white band in the middle of both wings. Hind-wings also may have a row of blue dashes or red dots toward the edges. The White Admiral is usually found in Northern deciduous evergreen forests. This butterfly likes to eat rotting fruit and nectar from small white flowers.

Giant Swallowtail

The Giant Swallowtail boasts a wingspan of up to 6 inches, making it one of the largest of its species. The swallowtail can be spotted as a black winged-insect with yellow spots on its edges creating a band across them. The Giant Swallowtail chooses rocky and sandy hillsides near bodies of water. This butterfly likes to get its nectar from several plants including goldenrod, azalea and swamp milkweed.

Monarch

The Monarch is a well-known butterfly with an interesting history. This butterfly is known to migrate from the north to the south including places in California and Mexico during the harsh, northern winter months. The Monarch has black and orange wings with white dots near the margins. The Queen butterfly who is a close relative is often mistaken for a Monarch but is also commonly spotted in Michigan. Monarchs are particular to milkweed plants.

Silver Spotted Skipper

The Silver Spotted Skipper has a small wingspan which can be up to about 2.5 inches. Its wings are a mixture of brown and black, with transparent gold spots and a metallic silver band. They reside in disturbed and open woods, streams and prairie waterways. This butterfly avoids feeding on any yellow flowers but instead eats plants like everlasting pea, common milkweed and thistles.

Little Glassywing

The little Glassywing has an even smaller wingspan than the Silver Spotted Skipper, which can be up to 1.5 inches. The wings are a combination of brown and black like the Skipper. These butterflies prefer to feed on white, pink and purple flowers including common milkweed and peppermint. These butterflies like to live near shaded wood edges.

Endangered butterflies

Two other butterflies that can be found in Michigan are the Karner Blue and the Mitchell’s Satyr. These butterflies are particularly noteworthy in the state because of their endangered status. MNA has profiled these butterflies in the past, bringing awareness to their endangered status in the U.S.

 

DNR to celebrate 40 years of Endangered Species Act with week of events

Photo courtesy of the DNR.

Photo courtesy of the DNR.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

The state of Michigan has hit a major milestone and the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, has decided to honor it in an extraordinary way: by hosting a week in honor of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, from Aug. 4-10.

The ESA was signed into law on July 11, 1974 and came into effect on Sept. 1 of that year. The DNR invites Michiganders to join them at the nearest state park for an insightful lecture on what the ESA is and what it means for an animal to be classified as endangered or threatened.

Click here to find the schedule of events.

According to the DNR, one success that the ESA is the recovery of the rare Kirtland’s warbler. This bird has garnered attention from far and wide. In a release from the DNR, Specialist Dan Kenneday said “Michigan’s ESA has been pivotal in the recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler.”

A Kirtland's warbler in an MNA sanctuary. Photo by Cindy Mead.

A Kirtland’s warbler in an MNA sanctuary. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The ESA plays a large role in maintaining balance in Michigan’s wondrous natural habitats and ecosystems. Without laws protecting animals, habitat decline, pollution and other issues will continue to cause harm to animals and their homes throughout the state, which may compromise the health of Michigan’s invaluable natural scenery.

When a species is classified as endangered, it means that it is in danger of becoming extinct. There are also many other species listed as threatened and may be on the verge of being listed as endangered. The ESA is one step in finding methods to solve the problem of extinction and has already found success in the restoration of the Kirtland’s warbler.

MNA supports the efforts of the ESA and the DNR and congratulates them on the 40th anniversary of the act. Don’t miss a chance to celebrate the ESA! For more information about the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, click here.