The Natural Fall Transition

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

As our summer slowly shifts into Michigan’s favorite season, the humidity will disappear into a brisk breeze and leaves will turn happy orange and red. You might partake in festive, nature oriented activities such as apple picking, birding, or fall color walks. Our reason for doing this is to enjoy some time with friends and family, but have you thought about the reason why nature acts as it does in the fall?

Migrating-Birds-Swans-Bill-and-Sharon-Draker-Rolfnp-comSince Autumn is a transitional season, often the plants and animals we see are in a transition period as they prepare for a long winter. For instance, birds are migrating back from their summer homes to somewhere less chilly for the winter. To many avid birders’ delights, we are lucky in Michigan to be able to see rare species such as warblers, vireos, and thrushes migrating. If you visit Whitefish Point, it is an excellent place to spot the migrating loons and, if you look towards the skies, you might also spot the soaring wingspans of sharp shinned hawks, bald eagles, and ospreys.

While the birds fly south, mammals take advantage of fall fruiting trees and plants. Species such as squirrels, chipmunks, and even bears might be more active as they prepare themselves for winter by gathering food and preparing nests or dens. Many types of berries and nuts ripen for consumption in the fall, and as the temperature cools, fungi also begin to sprout. The production of berries, nuts, and seeds this time of year cleverly coincides with the time that birds are stopping to snack during migration and when small mammals bury nuts for sparser months. These fruits and nuts are the structures that enable the dispersal of seeds, so these animals in transition are essential in the process of creating new plant life for some tree and shrub species such as red chokeberry, blackhaw viburnum, and common ninebark. Acorns from oak trees and hickory nuts serve the same purpose and are spread by small mammals in a process sometimes known as “scatter hoarding”.

lefglen nsWhile animals collect the nuts from trees for winter hibernation, the trees themselves have a very charismatic process that prepares them for their own kind of hibernation. During the winter months, deciduous trees go into a period of dormancy where they survive off the energy they stored during the sunny summer months, and they drop their leaves that contain chloroplasts (structures that turn light from the sun into plant food) to conserve energy. Leaves of trees can sense a shortening period of daylight, and eventually stop producing the chemical chlorophyll that make leaves green, and then we can see bright colored pigments such as orange and red that were previously masked by green all summer. We see the best fall colors when there is a wet growing season followed by a cool, frostless fall. Visit an MNA sanctuary to see this trees in action. Enjoy the colors!

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Invasive Species Spotlight: Japanese Stiltgrass

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

Microstegium_viminium_specimenAt first glance, Japanese stiltgrass appears to be an innocent, pleasant-looking plant. Most wouldn’t even give the grass a single thought if they were to encounter it. In a sad reality, however, that “irreproachable” grass is quite the opposite. This invasive species chokes out the wildlife around it, and grows and spreads at an alarming rate. It decreases biodiversity and forces animals and plants alike out of their natural habitats. It is widely thought that this species is among one of the most dangerous invasives, as it has spread throughout the country very quickly in relatively little time.

The grass was introduced in Tennessee in the early 1900s through its use as a packing material. It is native to Japan, China, central Asia, and India. Since then, it has spread rapidly to the east, and has started to make its way into the Midwest.

Like other invasive plant species, Japanese stiltgrass is spread with the unintentional aid of humans and animals. The small seeds latch onto fur and clothing, or are carried by the wind. The seeds can survive for up to five years in the soil. The stiltgrass can cross and self fertilize, producing up to 1,000 seeds per individual plant. Most animals avoid eating the plant, leaving it to grow with little to no controlling factors.

The stiltgrass is most often found in shaded areas that are often subject to soil disturbances such as tilling or flooding. It is found along roadways, in floodplains, along hiking paths, as well as in damp woodlands. It’s not picky when it comes to the acidity of the soil it inhabits, though it prefers the soil to be fertile. When in direct sunlight, it doesn’t grow as quickly as it normally could. Its growth is also slowed when near stagnant bodies of water. The grass can also infiltrate residential areas, and is often found in flower beds, lawns, and parks.

JPSGrass identification is notoriously tricky, but thankfully, Japanese stiltgrass has a variety of distinct features for people to identify it by. First off, each plant can have multiple weak stems that branch near the base of the plant. The stems are smooth, and can be green, brown, or purple. The leaves are two to four inches long, and about half an inch in length. They’re pointed on both ends, and have off-centered, silver, ridges. They are widely spread out on the stem. The roots are thin, and weak. They are very easy to pull out of the ground because they do not grow very deep into the soil. Aerial rootlets are present along nodes near the base of the stem – these stilt-like features are what gives the plant its common name of “stiltgrass”. The plants grow flowers in late summer through early fall, and the flowers have a few spikes.

Japanese stiltgrass can get up to about six feet tall, though many plants tend to be between one to three feet in height. The taller plants usually prop themselves up on other plants or trees, or they lay flat against the ground. During the autumn, the tops of the plants turn purple or brown, and in the winter the thatch turns an orange color.

While keeping Japanese stiltgrass under control and preventing it from spreading further may seem like a daunting task, it is undoubtedly a necessary one for the well-being of many ecosystems. Within recent years this invasive has spread to northern Indiana, and last year it was found for the first time in Michigan, in Washtenaw County. Be sure not to get it confused with common look alikes such as Whitegrass, Nimblewill, Basketgrass, Deer tongue, Smartweed, or Crabgrass!

Eddmaps MV distribution as of July 2018

Walk to Big Valley

Walk to Big Valley
Thursday, July 26
6:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Rose Township Hall
9080 Mason St, Holly, MI

Join the Rose Township Heritage Committee along with the Michigan Nature Association for a nature and historical walk from the Rose Township Hall to an overlook of the Big Valley Nature Sanctuary – home to a high quality prairie fen (a unique and rare type of wetland with an array of interesting native plants and animal species including a small butterfly that is federally listed as endangered).

The program is for all ages (and free) and will begin with a short presentation in the lower level of the Rose Township Hall located at 9080 Mason Street. Afterwards there will be about a 2 mile walk (round trip). While walking we will pass one of the township’s historical homes with a very interesting history and some interesting geological features. Refreshments will be served. Wear comfortable walking shoes and clothing.

Please RSVP to Dianne Scheib-Snider, dianne@rosetownship.com, 248-634-6889

Big Valley

Annual Monitoring in Effect at the Hart Plant Preserve

Hart NS signBy Lauren Cvengros, MNA Intern

The Donald E. Hart Plant Preserve is located in Benzie County in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula by Crystal Lake. It is a cedar swamp located on the Betsie River, donated by longtime MNA Members Donald E. and Marjorie A. Hart. The sanctuary is located within 45 minutes of Traverse City and is an incredibly beautiful spot thick with trees and full of frogs, salamanders and other amphibians. This sanctuary protects nine acres of conifer swamp and 255 feet of river front.

The land is completely untouched by humans, so the natural features are allowed to flourish. Although the land is safe from human influence, there are a few invasive species including reed canary grass and wild parsnip. The work the Michigan Nature Association does to protect the plant preserve is imperative to maintain and restore the native wildlife. The swamp area in this sanctuary is a Betsie River Near NW Corner 4common dumping ground for brush clippings and trash, so MNA’s efforts in annual monitoring is crucial. If you go to visit this sanctuary, you will notice the stillness of the untouched land, left in peace for the creatures who live there to thrive. This type of environment is becoming more and more scarce and if not properly taken care of there is a threat of habitat destruction and species extinction. The monitoring efforts conducted allow places such as the Hart Plant Preserve to exist.

3rd - Colwell, Roberta - Green FrogStepping onto the sanctuary land is like entering a whole new world, kept away from the commotion of everyday life. The present species are vibrant, mostly frogs and salamanders, of whom can be seen abundantly around the sanctuary. The preserve is home to all types of plants such as birch trees, pine trees, dogwood, honeysuckle, ferns, vines, and more. The thickly wooded forest and green covered floor of the sanctuary provides a prime example of a little slice of nature you can enjoy in Benzie County.

Pulling Spotted Knapweed at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

IMG_2038Tucked away behind an interesting little trucking company, Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary is a true sanctuary. A hidden, untouched, and thriving ecosystem where you would least expect it. In June, the Michigan Nature Association held a scheduled workday dedicated to the upkeep of this sanctuary. Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary consists of rare habitat, composed mostly of coastal plain marsh. I was told by the stewardship coordinator, Sam, that some of the plants found in the sanctuary are isolated communities that are typically found in marshes on the Atlantic coast. Thinking about the ecological reason as to how these plants managed to find a home in Michigan makes protecting these rare communities all the more important.

IMG_6617

Invasive spotted knapweed

The nature sanctuary not only contains coastal plain marsh, but also other critical habitats such as oak-pine barrens and dry sand prairies. The reason for our workday was focused on preservation of the dry sand prairies, which are susceptible to invasive species such as spotted knapweed. This invasive plant thrives in the soft, sandy soil. Spotted knapweed uses allelopathic chemicals to inhibit surrounding plant growth by exuding the chemical from its roots. For the critical habitat that the Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary protects, allowing this invasive species to spread would be detrimental to the rare marsh plant and wildflower communities.

The workday was led by West Michigan Regional Stewardship Organizer, Sam Brodley, and was attended by the two stewards of the sanctuary. What was unique about the stewards was that they were both young teenage girls. It was cool for me, as an aspiring female conservation biologist, to see young girls actively engaged in natural resource management. My mom and I arrived at the work day a little late, so we missed the group heading to the work site. Not knowing which direction they headed, we ended up going on a bit of a walk in the opposite way. While we missed some of the actual work, we were able to explore some of the sanctuary that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The trail we were on followed the marsh area and ran deeper into the woods as opposed to the dry sand prairie that we hoped to find. Though we enjoyed the scenic detour, I eventually contacted Sam and found our way to the right place.

IMG_9602The area we were working in was an open area, with sparse trees and shrubbery. Nothing stood out to me at first as clearly invasive, as sometimes plants do when they begin to overtake an area. One of the women who attended the workday told me that once you know what spotted knapweed looked like, you’d see it everywhere. She was very correct. It took me a second to become familiar with the plant, but soon I could spot it amongst other prairie like plants. The plant has a pale green, ashy complexion, which makes it stand out against native species. We were also told to look for its compound leaves to help distinguish it from similar prairie plants. Since the soil was so loose and it had recently rained, it was easy to pull the entire plant, taproot included, from the ground. We were lucky that the knapweed had not flowered yet, so we didn’t have to worry about bagging or burning the discarded plants.

When we had felt like we had made solid progress, we made the walk back to the cars and parted ways. Attending a workday, though shortened by an unfortunate case of misdirection, was a great way to feel involved with the nature of Michigan, even in places you’d least expect it. I got a great breathe of fresh air, and now I will always know how to spot spotted knapweed!

Check out MNA’s event calendar for find a volunteer workday near you!

Celebrate National Pollinator Week this June 18 – 24, 2018!

By Lauren Cvengros, MNA Intern

The phrase “Save The Bees” is being thrown around a lot these days, but what does it really mean? It’s a phrase meant to inspire people to protect these little creatures that help pollinate our plants; but it goes beyond just bees, all pollinating critters are in dire need of protection.

pollinator week 2018Eleven years ago, the Senate approved Pollinator Week to be held June 18-24 to raise awareness for the declining pollinator presence in our ecosystem. Pollinator Week is an international movement to celebrate the ecosystem services that bees, bats, butterflies, birds and beetles provide to us. These pollinators are responsible for producing one-third of the food we eat by helping plants reproduce. Do you like to enjoy a yummy chocolate bar, crave avocado toast for breakfast or carve pumpkins on Halloween? Those are all made possible by our pollinating friends. Pollinators don’t just provide use with honey – if we didn’t have them we wouldn’t be able to eat fruits or vegetables, drink coffee, or add spices to our food. Even dairy would be limited as the food cows eat is available due to pollinators.

Plants are asexual, meaning they need a little help to reproduce. The pollinators carry the pollen from the male plants to the female plants so the females can produce seeds, fruit and the next generation of plants. Wondering what exactly these pollinated plants bring us?

They’re responsible for:

  • provide the fruits and nuts we eat,
  • give us half of the world’s oils, fibers and raw materials,
  • prevent soil erosion,
  • increase carbon sequestration (stores carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere causing global warming),
  • support other wildlife;
  • protect against severe weather and promote clean air.

How you can help?

There are things you can do at home to participate in Pollinator Week.

  1. Make room for pollinators at your home. You can give them a place to live by This sign is in someone's front yard in Oakland, CA.planting gardens. Live in a city? Not a problem, pollinators love plants in any setting. Make sure you are planting the correct plants. You can find a guide to which plants are best for pollinators by visiting http://pollinator.org/pollinators#fn.
  2. Buying local is another way to support our pollinators – opt for buying in season, organic honey, fruits, spices and vegetables from a trusted source such as a farmer’s market.
  3. Spread the word! Let others know about Pollinator Week to raise awareness and help protect our pollinating friends.


If you would like to know more about Pollinator Week and ways to help, visit these links to get involved:

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.