Bee Restoration, Lake Trout, and Birding Apps: this week in environmental news

To save bees, city plans 1,000 acres of prairie (mother nature network): It’s generally a bad time to be a bee in the United States. Populations of the pollinating insects have been declining for more than a decade, including managed honeybee colonies as well as various species of native wild bees. Of course, this isn’t just bad news for bees. Not only do honeybees give us honey and wax, but bees of all stripes play a pivotal role in our food supply. This spring, the city of Cedar Rapids will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, part of a broader plan to create a diffuse, 1,000-acre haven for bees and other pollinators. This should help local ecosystems as well as local farms, and if it works as intended, it could become a model for similar projects elsewhere. The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative in Cedar Rapids is hoping to create a movement to build oases for pollinators across the country.

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A bee forages among purple flowers near Iowa City. Photo: Geoffrey Fairchild/Flickr.

Searching for bee veterinarians (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan State University is searching for veterinarians willing to treat bees. The Pollinator Initiative at Michigan State launched the search after a recent FDA decision outlawed over-the-counter antibiotics for all food-producing animals. That means a veterinarian has to give beekeepers a prescription for antibiotics. Meghan Milbrath, a beekeeper of 23 years, has a list of 22 Michigan veterinarians who are willing to work with beekeepers, and it is online for beekeepers to find and pick from, depending on their location. In the meantime, Milbrath will train the veterinarians on how to write bee prescriptions. She is teaching online courses and hosting monthly webinars. Eventually, she hopes to create a bee health elective in the College of Veterinary Medicine at MSU.

Unique lake trout could help restore Lake Michigan population (Great Lakes Echo): Scientists have found a potential new ally in the fight to restore lake trout in Lake Michigan. Elk Lake in Northwest Michigan is home to a strain of that fish that researchers believe can contribute uniquely to restoring it. Elk Lake trout have been self-sustaining and reproducing for years. Scientists have been attempting for decades to reintroduce strains from Lake Superior and other areas in the basin–with mixed success. Stocking from Elk Lake may be more successful. Diversity benefits reintroduction efforts because different strains survive in different habitats. Improving lake trout stocking has broad public support.

It’s like Shazam for birds: Song Sleuth app IDs birds by their song (treehugger): The Song Sleuth app was just released for iOS, with an Android version in the works for this fall, and it not only helps people become better birders by helping them identify birds by their songs, but it also includes access to The David Sibley Bird Reference, which offers additional details about the birds, including the birds’ seasonal range maps, song samples, and illustrations of their appearance. Song Sleuth users need merely open the app, push the record button, and allow the app to listen in and record the bird’s song, after which the users are presented with the three most probable birds that the song belongs to. Users can geotag their recordings, add custom notes to them, download the audio files for future reference, or even send their recordings to others via email of messaging apps, further adding to the social nature of the birding community (or used to attract more people to the art and science of birding).

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Song Sleuth App. © Wildlife Acoustics.

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.

Lake Erie, Birds, and Earthworms: this week in environmental news

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Lake Erie algal bloom in 2015. Image: NASA

Michigan declares Lake Erie impaired (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder designated that state’s portion of Lake Erie as impaired on November 10. Lake Erie has been threatened by toxic algae blooms for several years, threatening drinking water quality in Toledo and limiting recreational uses. Within the past year, the governors of Michigan and Ohio and the premier of Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding acknowledging the threat of toxic algae. They set a goal to reduce phosphorous loading up to 40 percent by 2025.

Toxins kill thousands of birds along Lake Michigan shore (Great Lakes Echo): Since 2006, dead birds have been washing up on Lake Michigan beaches. But this fall has been exceptionally grim, with up to five thousand birds being found dead along the shore. Researchers say the birds are dying because of a toxin called avian botulism, which can form on the lake bed under certain conditions. Botulism forms when there’s a lack of oxygen in the water. Even as botulism begins to form, it’s down near toxic valleys that many small fish continue to eat, consuming the poison as they feed. Local and migratory birds that land on Lake Michigan, tired and famished from their journey, consume small fish like the invasive Round Goby. Having eaten the infected fish, the birds become sick and die out on the lake due to paralyzing effects.

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Restoration projects have made it possible for safe water recreational use in the Sarnia region of the St. Clair River. Image: Megan McDonnell

U.S., Canada battle St. Clair River’s polluted legacy (Great Lakes Echo): The St. Clair River that connects Lake Huron with Lake St. Clair has a long history of environmental problems. They are challen­­­­­­­­­­ges as diverse as E. coli bacteria that shut down beaches, industrial pollution by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury contamination so severe that residents are advised to limit their consumption of locally caught fish. In recent years cleanup and sediment remediation projects have vastly improved the river and it is beginning to flourish once again. There have been more than 280 fish and aquatic wildlife habitat restoration projects on the St. Clair River, 12 of which were shoreline restoration projects.

Sea lamprey, Asian carp, zebra mussels and earthworms? (Great Lakes Echo): The wriggly soil-dwellers may not have the bad rep of some of their invasive counterparts, but they do have the power to change entire ecosystems. Now a recent study has found that an abundance of earthworms causes a decrease in the small plant matter scattered on the forest floor. By eating away at what scientists call “fine root biomass” worms can significantly change the forest. Worms start a bottom-up chain reaction that can bring about fundamental environmental changes. They affect what plants are able to root and grow in the soil. The kinds of plants that grow affect which species of animals can live in a forest.

Forest Birds, Fish Slides, and Rare Butterflies: this week in environmental news

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Magnolia Warbler. Image: Jon Swanson.

Great Lakes forest birds mostly stable or increasing (Great Lakes Echo): A record study that took 25 years and 700 birdwatchers and researchers has found that most birds at three different national forests in the Great Lakes region are either increasing or stable. The study is another great example of the important role volunteer bird watchers can play in tracking populations of the birds they love. The count became an annual tradition for many bird enthusiasts. The study is cause for guarded optimism about the state of forest birds in the Northwestern Great Lakes Basin.

Fish slides, anyone? (Great Lakes Echo): Sturgeon go back to the river to spawn safely. But hydroelectric dams often block rivers, forcing fish to spawn in more dangerous spaces. Listen to this podcast to learn more about how the River Alliance of Wisconsin is giving fish a little boost.

Healthy ravines for healthy watersheds (Great Lakes Echo): Created by the same retreating glaciers that carved and filled the Great Lakes, you could say lakeshore ravines are the lakes’ blood relatives. Great lakes ravines face deterioration at the hands of invasive species and pollution. Conservationists are working to address this issue.

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The Poweshiek Skipperling is an endangered butterfly that lives mainly in prairie fen wetlands in southeast Michigan. Image: Dave Cuthrell, MSU Extension.

Rare butterfly rests its wings in unique SE Michigan ecosystem (Great Lakes Echo): Listen to WKAR’s radio story about Kevin Lavery’s expedition to find the endangered Poweshiek Skipperling. It’s only found in a half a dozen places on Earth, and two-thirds of them are in Michigan. The rare butterfly once thrived on the Great Plains is now fighting for its survival in Michigan.

National Parks, Species Studies, and Solar Energy: this week in environmental news

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A view of the beach below a dune from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo: carfull

Great Lakes national parks prepare for centennial (Great Lakes Echo): The Great Lakes region units of the National Park Service are celebrating its centennial this year, after its creation in 1916. The national parks are publicly owned treasures of environmental and natural resources, historic and cultural wealth, recreation and national identity.

More harm than help? Antibacterial hand soaps threaten fish (Great Lakes Echo): The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that many consumer products, including antibacterial soaps, contain triclosan. That’s a chemical added to prevent and reduce bacterial contamination. Although it has not been found hazardous to people, scientific studies found that it alters hormones in animals. This may cause a population of fish to have a much smaller number of reproducing adults and that would lead to a much smaller population of fish in general. A lot of other animals, including humans, eat fish, but with a smaller population of fish, fewer fish will be available to eat.

Binational efforts target bird-bashing buildings (Great Lakes Echo): According to a recent report by the University of Toronto, somewhere between 365 million and 988 million birds die annually from window collisions in the U.S. and Canada. A member of Congress from Illinois has proposed a bill to bird proof the windows of federal buildings. Bird-safe glass has an ultraviolet pattern within the glass that is invisible to the human eye, but gives birds a heads up.

In Japan, work kicks off on the world’s largest floating solar farm (Mother Nature Network): Japan, a nation that’s big on solar but short on space, is constructing the world’s largest floating solar farm. The solar power plant will be located at the Yamakura Dam reservoir in Chiba Prefecture, outside of Tokyo. The facility will produce enough juice to power about 5,000 homes while offsetting 8,170 cubic tons of CO2 emissions annually – a figure that’s equivalent to the consumption of 19,000 barrels of oil.

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Kyocera has done floating solar installations before. But this one, a 13.7 MW facility due to go online in 2018, will be by far the largest. Photo: Kyocera

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? 

Michigan bird guide, financial case for carbon rule presented and the social network of prairie dogs: this week in environmental news

An American Robin. Photo by John Beetham courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

An American Robin. Photo by John Beetham courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

Winged Wednesday: A Great Lakes summer bird guide (Great Lakes Echo): There are 47 million bird watchers in the nation over the age of 16, according to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey. With this nationwide trend, the Great Lakes State offers diverse habitats throughout both peninsulas, making it difficult for birdwatchers to pick a favorite location.

Peter Marler. Photo by Ingbert Gruttner. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Peter Marler. Photo by Ingbert Gruttner. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Peter Marler, graphic decoder of birdsong, dies at 86 (New York Times): Basic animal science in the 1950s made the claim that animals made noises very unlike human conversation. Yet, when Peter Marler, an animal behaviorist born in Britian, came along, he showed that songbirds learned to sign in varieties or dialects of their region.

White House pushes financial case for carbon rule (New York Times): According to an analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers released Tuesday, carbon emissions causing climate change could cost $150 billion per year. The report serves as another way to further Obama’s plan of cutting carbon emissions and reducing climate change.

Vicious cycle: Air conditioning is making your city even hotter (Conservation Magazine): Rising temperatures start creating a cycle of turning on the air conditioning, emitting carbon into the air and causing temperatures to continue to rise in the long run. Yet recent research has shown that air conditioners are also making temperatures hotter just through the absorption of hot air in a room and its emission outdoors.

Prairie Dogs. Courtesy of Conservation Magazine.

Prairie Dogs. Courtesy of Conservation Magazine.

Creating a prairie dog “Facebook” to aid conservation (Conservation Magazine): In recent studies, researchers have attempted to gain more insight into the social world of animals via “social network analysis.” This method in research has helped scientists to take a closer look into the complex social networks, hubs and connections of prairie dogs.