Expanding Protection at Carlton Lake Wetlands

Last year MNA added 120 acres to Carlton Lake Wetlands Nature Sanctuary in Chippewa County. This addition solved MNA’s most serious and longstanding sanctuary access issue! Previously, access to this sanctuary was a long and cumbersome trek starting with a rugged drive, followed by a lengthy canoe ride to finally reach the entrance of the sanctuary. Now guests can access the sanctuary year-round on foot. Thanks to this land acquisition, Carlton Lake Wetlands Nature Sanctuary expanded to 520 acres!
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While valuable as an access acquisition in its own right, the parcel is significant as part of the overall wetland complex. The wetlands are largely comprised of emergent and submergent marsh, northern shrub thicket, and rich conifer swamp. Some of the uplands include boreal forest and mesic northern forest. Northern wet meadow and northern fen is also found on the Carlton Lake Wetlands addition. The property is very promising to see Calypso orchids and other unique plants.

Due to the large scale of this wetland complex and its location within the migratory flyway between the Straits of Mackinac and mainland Canada, a great diversity of birds have been seen using this sanctuary. This addition provides significant wetland habitat utilized by secretive marsh birds and flocks of migratory waterfowl, including black tern, sedge wren, blackburnian warbler, and spotted sandpiper. The Carlton Lake Wetlands Nature Sanctuary addition also hosts beaver, bear, large canids, deer, and grouse populations.

This property was purchased using the MNA Revolving Fund, established to allow MNA to respond quickly when a new piece of land like this appears on the market. Donate now to replenish the Fund and protect this valuable wetland!
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Showcase Sanctuary: Dowagiac Woods

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Hunter’s Creek. Photo: Dan Sparks-Jackson

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Since its establishment as a Michigan Nature Association sanctuary in 1983, Dowagiac Woods has become renowned for its dazzling, weeks-long display of spring wildflowers.  In fact, this in part is what inspired the Michigan Nature Association’s interest; shortly after a member visited the woods in 1975 and noted the abundance of Blue-eyed Mary on a 220-acre forest lot that was for sale, an appeal was made for funding to purchase it. The original purchase has since been expanded to encompass an additional 164 acres.

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Trails of Wildflowers. Photo: Judy Kepler

Every year visitors walk the trails meandering through the diverse blooms, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in the state. However, Dowagiac Woods is a unique example of the value of Michigan’s natural heritage, not just for its famed spring wildflowers, but because it’s a largely undisturbed 384-acre block of high-quality forest habitat with ample biodiversity to support a variety of Michigan-native wildlife, including many rare and some endangered species. Nearly 50 kinds of trees and hundreds of various other plant species, as well as close to 50 kinds of birds, have been catalogued by MNA. These include the Yellow-throated warbler whose clear songs grace visitors with joyful notes, the notorious Pileated woodpecker, and the rare and lovely Cerulean warbler.

Large, intact forest blocks like Dowagiac Woods are vital to the composition of habitats that support an array of wildlife, yet are becoming increasingly rare in southern Michigan as landscapes are fragmented by industry and human use. Additionally, the majority of Michigan’s intact forests reside in the upper half of the state. Thus, as the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula and a rare, high-quality example of the natural state of Michigan’s mesic southern and southern floodplain forests, Dowagiac Woods is truly a state treasure.

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Dowagiac Woods the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula. Photo: Patricia Pennell

The ecological importance of biologically diverse plant communities can’t be overstated. Plants form the basis of habitats and aid in performing various hydrological functions not limited to natural flood control, water purification, and the cycling of water. They anchor and enrich the soil, cycle important nutrients, and convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. Forests also act as important carbon sinks by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. The more diverse the community of plants that make up a community, the more efficiently it can function as a whole and perform these essential services. When biodiversity drops, ecosystems become less resilient against disturbances like disease or fire, because a single species comprises a much greater proportion of the plant community and its decline takes a greater toll.

With the exception of a section of woods that was selectively cut in the 1960s, the majority of Dowagiac Woods has thankfully remained undisturbed. The Michigan Nature Association’s mission is to preserve and maintain pristine areas like Dowagiac Woods. With soil that has never been plowed and trees that have never been clear-cut, it is the closest illustration of how Michigan’s forests may have looked prior to settlement. Visitors are encouraged to walk the trails and take in the rare sights and sounds of the many unique species found there. With careful management, what remains of Michigan’s natural heritage may yet be enjoyed for generations to come.

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.

Tar sands threat in Great Lakes region pipelines

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet, providing drinking water for 30 million people. The Lakes are home to a fishery worth $7 billion annually and multiple species, including threatened and endangered animals. The Great Lakes are crucial to the economies of the surrounding states.

The Mackinac Bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Mackinac Bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Recently, the National Wildlife Federation wrote an article about the old pipeline that runs under the Mackinac Bridge under Lakes Michigan and Huron. The pipeline is 60 years old and carries 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas fluids daily across the Straits of Mackinac. The 60-year-old pipeline is part of the Lakehead Pipeline System that carries crude oil to refineries in the Great Lakes region.

“We are dealing with a 60-year-old pipeline in one of the most sensitive areas of the world, and it carries one of the dirtiest, most toxic types of oil on the planet – tar sands-derived crude,” said Andy Buchsbaum, director of NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.

Tar sands oil is heavier than traditional crude, which increases the likelihood of ruptures because the pipelines are designed to transport lighter conventional crudes. Tar sands oil contains more cancer-causing chemicals, emits more greenhouse gases when burned, and is harder to clean up because it can sink in water. In the forests of western Canada, it has poisoned local waters, killed wildlife, and threatened human health.

According to government officials, the pipeline (Line 5) crossing the Straits has never leaked. However, there is good reason to believe a rupture is possible in the future. The pipeline is partially owned by Enbridge, Inc., a Canadian-based oil transporter. The company has a history of careless maintenance and frequent oil spills. Recently, an Enbridge Partners pipeline ruptured and dumped 1 million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River. The spill sickened over 300 people, killed numerous fish and birds in the area, and disrupted the river’s ecosystem. The cleanup will cost an estimated $1 billion. Enbridge Inc. pipelines have suffered nearly 800 spills in the United States since 1999.

The National Wildlife Foundation wants Enbridge to replace the 60-year-old pipeline, and they have also filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop shipments of tar sands-derived crude through any U.S. pipelines until safety regulations are improved.

If the pipeline were to rupture, it would cause significant damage to numerous types of wildlife in Michigan. For more information, see the article that appeared in National Wildlife magazine.

How similar are prairie restorations to native prairie remnants in southwest Michigan?

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post is the second in a series of posts on research done in MNA sanctuaries. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. She is interested in how species assemble into plant communities. To study Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and Emily teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. More information is available on Dr. Grman’s website

Of the vast areas of tallgrass prairie that once flourished in the central United States, less than 1% remains. In Michigan, scattered patches of native prairie once intermingled with savanna and woodland communities, but nearly all have been converted to cropland or development. This massive habitat loss has threatened the persistence of prairie plant and animal species. Over the past few decades, conservationists have increasingly used prairie restoration as a tool to reverse habitat loss. Prairie restoration in Michigan frequently involves adding seed of native prairie species and returning fire to former agricultural land. These restoration efforts often produce communities with an abundance of native plant species that can provide habitat for prairie insects and animals, but these restored prairies don’t replicate remnant, untilled prairies. This is partly because we still don’t completely understand the complex ecological interactions that allow ecosystems to accumulate species as they recover from a disturbance or change through time. Clearly, though, this information is essential. We must understand how to reconstruct communities in order to successfully rebuild lost prairie ecosystems.

In my current research, I aim to understand how species assemble into a community. I am a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. To study the assembly of plant communities in Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and I teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. In summer 2011, our research team collected data on the plant communities in five remnant prairies in southwest Michigan, including three MNA properties: the Betty and Ralph Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve at Helmer Brook, Prairie Ronde Savanna, and Sauk Indian Trail. We compared those data to 27 restored prairies throughout southwest Michigan, many on private lands.

We learned that restored prairies and remnant prairies in Michigan differ in important ways. Dominant C4 prairie bunchgrasses, such as big bluestem and indiangrass, were more abundant in restorations than in remnant prairies. We also found some prairie plant species in remnants that we never encountered in restorations, such as Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus), and early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). Some of these differences may be due to the seed mixes used during restorations: none of those remnant prairie species were included in restoration seed mixes, and seed mixes often had high densities of C4 grasses. Even so, including rare prairie species in seed mixes did not guarantee that they would become part of the prairie community. Of the 65 different prairie species commonly included in seed mixes, more than 25% never established in our transects, and another 40% established less than half the time. Despite this, restored prairies had nearly as many species as the remnant prairies: we found 36 species in restorations (on average, per 10 m2 sampling area) and 41 species in remnants.

From this study, we learned that while prairie restoration can create diverse grasslands to provide habitat for many native species, restoration has not recreated the communities we see in rare prairie remnants that have never been tilled. Therefore we believe it is essential to continue to preserve the rare gems of remnant prairie habitat scattered throughout southwest Michigan.

Signs of Spring: Amphibians Return to Vernal Pools

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

For many Michigan residents, there are a few tell-tale signs of spring: Springtime birds chirping after being gone for a long winter, green grass growing, flowers sprouting, and days getting longer. But MNA stewards have one more thing to tell them that spring is here: Salamanders and other amphibians migrating to vernal pools.

A salamander MNA steward Dave Richmond found in his yard in early April. Photo by Dave Richmond.

A salamander MNA steward Dave Richmond found in his yard in early April. Photo by Dave Richmond.

Each spring, amphibians make mass (well, mini) migrations to vernal pools and ponds, usually at night during or after the first warm rainstorm. Once at the vernal pools, these amphibians will mate and lay their eggs before returning to the forest. Dave Richmond, a steward at the Edna S. Newnan Nature Sanctuary in St. Clair County, spotted some of the first salamanders of the season early this month—which means spring must be here, after all.

Vernal pools are natural, temporary bodies of water that occur in a shallow depression. These pools typically fill during the spring or fall and may dry in the summer; have no viable populations of fish; and provide essential breeding and nursery habitat for several organisms, including amphibians. Many amphibian eggs have physical properties or toxic compounds that help deter predators, but amphibians that are dependent on vernal pools lack these protections. As a result, their eggs and young are vulnerable to both aquatic and terrestrial predators. Not all vernal pools dry up every year, but each pool has some feature that prevents fish from living there, such as low oxygen concentrations during the summer or shallow levels that allow the pool to freeze to the bottom during the winter.

The spring issue of Michigan Nature magazine includes a feature on vernal pools—keep an eye out to learn more about these unique and important habitats!