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!

Whooping Crane in Michigan

by Tina Patterson
MNA Volunteer

In North America there are only two species of cranes that can be found. First, the sandhill is the most common of all cranes and is one the four crane species not to be considered endangered. The other crane found in North America and the most at risk of extinction, is the majestic whooping crane. Standing almost five and a half feet tall with a wing span of more than seven feet, the “whooper” is the tallest bird in North America. The sandhill crane has become a common sight in the Jackson and Chelsea (Michigan) area with approximately 17,000 counted this year at an Auduban sanctuary. While in comparison there are less than 300 whooping cranes found in the wild (the 2010 estimate was just 263).

whooping cranes flying

Whooping Cranes Flying

A wayward “whooper” has somehow found its way to the sandhill migratory resting place at the Phyllis Hanehnle Sanctuary just north of Chelsea, attracting birders from near and far. Standing among the sandhills the whooper is hard to miss with his distinctive coloration: bright white body, red crown, long dark legs and dark pointed bill standing out in contrast to the more subtle colored sandhills.

This bird is thought to be bird # 37-07 based upon the multiple leg bandings, meaning it was the 37th bird hatched in captivity in Wisconsin in 2007. At 3 years old he has reached maturity and with a lifespan of 22-24 years in the wild, scientists hope that he will mate and continue to help the endangered population grow.

The crane’s stop in Michigan is a pit stop en route from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin towards his winter home in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, a 1,200 mile journey.

Bird # 37-07 is part of “Operation Migration,” a non-profit group working with the Wildlife Service and other agencies to condition the young birds to fly behind ultra-light airplanes as they are lead from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida. While it is a perilous journey for the chicks, with high rates of mortality in their first year of life, the project has brought back this magnificent bird from the edge of extinction in the 1940’s to a flock that is reproducing and growing in number. How fortunate we are to be able to see one right in our own backyard.

Due to the migration path of the whooping crane, it is unlikely that any MNA properties would act as host. If however their route would change or a lone crane would stray, Edwin and Margarita Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Kalamazoo County, Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary in Muskegon County and Hamilton Township Coastal Marsh Nature Sanctuary in Van Buren County are the properties with the greatest likelihood of hosting a whooping crane on their migration.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes can be seen throughout MNA Nature Sanctuary, including Martin Bay Nature Sanctuary in Delta County, Goose Creek Nature Sanctuary in Lenawee County, Big Valley Nature Sanctuary in Oakland County, Saginaw Wetlands Nature Sanctuary in Huron County and H.E. Hardy Memorial in Livingston County.

To learn more about the wildlife and habitats of MNA Nature Sanctuaries, click here.