Nurturing a Symbiotic Relationship with Michigan Nature

by Dan Burton, MNA Sanctuary Steward

March signals the end of another winter, woody invasive shrubs removal season. It is not exactly a season noted on the calendar or managed by regulators, but is well known to many volunteer stewards. For me the season begins when the trees have lost most of their leaves in late fall and ends as sap begins to swell overwintered buds in early spring. As I recently toured a prairie fen I steward noting this season’s piles of cut invasive shrubs and open canopy, I was excited for the restoration work completed. I was also saddened to see another season go, even though I knew it meant spring was around the corner.

Before restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

There is something about this restoration work that I find very rewarding. It is tough physical work in cold winter conditions, but I am still drawn (if not addicted) to it. Part of the draw is working outside immersed in the natural elements that awaken dormant senses not unlike the hours I spend hiking and canoeing. Part of it is the physical tasks that drain my ageing body’s meager energy reserves taking with it pent-up anxiety from everyday life and yet somehow leaving me recharged. Part of it is the positive feeling of helping out an underdog prairie fen as it fights off a formidable foe in invasive shrubs. The prairie fen has historically had the help of fire in this battle, but that friendly partner has been mostly absent these days and sorely missed by many of the prairie fen’s native flora and fauna that benefit from the open canopy created.

Another part is the human elements I find outdoors even when working solo. I usually get to work with some dedicated like minded volunteers and enjoy the camaraderie, but COVID restrictions made this a solo season. As this season came to an end and I looked around the prairie fen I had worked so hard to help in its struggle against invasive intruders, I found myself alone and thinking about my stepdad and his brother who introduced me to the outdoors as a kid. They are both gone now and in some way, I think I was hoping they would be proud of the restoration work, its benefit to wildlife, and how they played a role in it by introducing me to the outdoors so many years ago.

After restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

As I rested on a weathered downed tree tossing back trail mix, faded fond memories of early morning fishing and hunting trips with the two of them drifted in lifting my spirits. They would be proud of the restoration work, but being old school they likely would have questioned my sanity. It does seem crazy to think of the hours, effort and resources I put into volunteer stewardship, yet I benefit as much as the prairie fen and its fantastic native flora and fauna. I guess you could simply say I am in a symbiotic relationship with a pretty prairie fen and thankful for its many mutual benefits.


Learn more about how you can become a Sanctuary Steward with MNA and start nurturing your symbiotic relationship today at michigannature.org.

Species Spotlight: Fairy Shrimp

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

A vernal pool fills with water around the springtime, bringing new life. Here, a small crustacean hatches; a lesser known relative of the lobster.

This crustacean’s common name, fairy shrimp, is the perfect nod to its graceful demeanor in the water and its small, delicate body. These aquatic dancers glide through the water on their backs by slowly rippling their eleven pairs of legs to create propulsion. They vary in size but are typically around three quarters of an inch long.

Fairy shrimp photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

The fairy shrimp would not be able to survive without the protective habitat created by the emergence of vernal pools each year. Though the ephemeral nature of vernal pools makes them a safe place for fairy shrimp to live without fish predators, surviving in such impermanent conditions is no small task. Fortunately, fairy shrimp are well adapted to do just that.

Once their eggs hatch, fairy shrimp have relatively short life cycles, only about a few weeks, allowing them to age and usually reproduce within the short window provided by the pool. In the case that the vernal pool dries up too quickly for the fairy shrimp to reproduce, these clever crustaceans have a backup strategy. Each spring, only a segment of the fairy shrimp eggs that had been laid the previous year will hatch, leaving the rest to remain dormant for potentially several years. That means that the fairy shrimp population can continue to survive, even if the pool doesn’t fill with water one year.

The presence of fairy shrimp is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, as it is considered an indicator species to confirm the presence of a vernal pool; and is exciting to behold if you are lucky enough to witness it.

Spotted salamanders are another species that use vernal pools. Photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

As a lead partner of the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership, the Michigan Nature Association is committed to protecting vernal pools for all of the species that use them at a number of our more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries throughout Michigan.

Sanctuary Spotlight: Mystery Valley

by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer

If cabin fever is setting in and all of your go-to getaways are busier than ever, it may be time to switch things up and seek out an alternative destination. Presque Isle County in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula is a treasure trove of discovery. Much of northeastern Michigan is composed of limestone rock, but if you look more closely, you will see that there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

There are a number of protected and managed karst features in Alpena and Presque Isle County. Karst terrains are characterized by caves, steep valleys, swallow holes (a place where water disappears or sinks underground), and a general lack of surface streams because drainage is underground. The resulting landscape provides unusual habitats for plants and animals.

Exposed karst formations at Bruski Sink in Presque Isle County. Photo by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer.

In what would otherwise appear to be typical farmland in Presque Isle County are three of these karst features within minutes of each other, and each uniquely different. Bruski Sink and Stevens Twin Sinks are owned and managed by the Michigan Karst Conservancy both offering stellar views of exposed rock faces as well as a short but steep causeway. The 76-acre Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary, which is managed by both the Michigan Nature Association as well as the Michigan Karst Preserve, is regarded as the finest known example of a karst valley with a swallow hole in Michigan.

A welcome kiosk at Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary informs visitors to the features of this unique area. Photo by Zach Pacana, MNA Regional Stewardship Organizer.

Your adventure begins with roadside parking and a trail leading you past a series of earth cracks (Caution: DO NOT CLIMB IN THE EARTH CRACKS!). The path continues further down into the heart of Mystery Valley where you find a recessed valley floor and a large sinkhole. Water rising from beneath the surface often creates a lake that covers the west and lower ends of the valley. Most of the water reaches the surface through a sinkhole in the bedrock at the valley’s west end. Snowmelt and rain runoff also contribute to the water levels. As water flows through the underground drainage system toward Lake Huron, Mystery Valley’s “disappearing” lake drains back through the sinkhole… and disappears.

A sinkhole filled with water at Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Randy Butters.

So if you are looking to experience a unique piece of Michigan nature, look no further than MNA’s Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary, and remember to take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

Learn more and get involved at michigannature.org.

The Sounds of Spring

by Christopher Bobryk

Music has the power to evoke an emotional response in people that promotes healing and improves our overall well-being. Perhaps something many of us could benefit from right now. Luckily, we have our very own symphony playing in our backyards every morning, bellowing from the treetops, powerlines, or even the gutters of your garage. The burbles, buzzes, seets and trills of the dawn chorus are here to help us through some tough and uncertain times. All we need to do is listen.

Sedge Wren

A sedge wren sits along a fence. Photo by Cindy Mead.

Interacting with nature can have profound positive effects on our mental and physical health. These impacts can be seen in communities where increasing access to green spaces, blue spaces (areas surrounding water), street trees, or urban gardens are creating a sense of place that provides solace or reprieve from hectic urban environments. 

This innate connection with nature is a powerful driver for preserving landscapes and ensuring accessibility to these natural areas. However, in our current state of social distancing and self-quarantine, it may be difficult for some to get out into a sanctuary or park, especially city folks sheltered at home, where access to nature may already be limited.

Simply listening to what a morning chorus sounds like is an opportunity, right now, for us to gain back a little bit of normality in our lives. What we hear in a dawn chorus can be a great reminder that the world is much larger, complex, and beautiful than we often realize. 

black-capped chickadee

A black-capped chickadee’s song is widely recognized, and they are often heard before being seen. Photo by Cindy Mead.

The dawn (and dusk) choruses by our avian friends are a spectacular and mysterious part of our everyday soundscape. Scientists do not really know why this phenomenon occurs, although a couple theories suggest the sunrise singing helps birds defend territories and find mates. The amazing part is that we can observe this phenomenon from the comfort of our homes, apartments, backyards, courtyards, or city streets.

In early Spring, we begin to hear the raspy voices of common backyard residents working hard to hone their voice boxes, or syrinx – a special organ that only birds have at the top of their windpipes. For instance, the mumbled tuks and sharp yeeps from an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) can be heard well before the sun peeks through your window. These are welcoming tunes that signal the grip of Winter is relaxing a bit.  

Not all choruses sound that same, either. The quality and complexity of a chorus is largely affected by the type and structure of habitats available to support a variety of songbird species. An area that has a greater diversity of natural structures, like trees, shrubs, tall grasses, or waterways, is likely to hold greater biodiversity, which often rewards you with a kaleidoscope of sounds. 

RWBBParkLyndon by Tim Muffitt

A Red-Winged Blackbird perches on a cattail. Red-Winged Blackbirds are one of the earliest arriving migrating birds in spring. Photo by Tim Muffitt.

Unfortunately, the scale and rate of urban development continues to threaten the shape, function, and legacy of natural areas. We are losing soundscapes at an alarming rate, some which may never return. The noises affiliated with urbanization and growing road networks have an immense effect on how birds communicate, to a point where some species alter their singing when faced with continuous human-made noises.  

The mission of MNA is vital to protecting our natural resources and fostering more livable communities for future generations. The critical work of protecting natural areas is evident in the 180 nature sanctuaries permanently set aside for our exploration. By protecting ecosystems, we are protecting the soundscapes that define these environments, too; a natural resource worth preserving.

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A stream runs through the Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Tina Patterson.

I recently explored the Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary, in Shelby Township, and recorded a short moment spent standing among a cohort of towering tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). The acoustic signature of this preserve is unique and will change over time – offering new acoustic experiences to discover as the seasons change. 

This is a unique time in our lives to take a minute (or two) to really hear what’s happening around us. Think about finding that moment early one morning, maybe just for yourself or family, and celebrate the theme song of Spring.