Species Spotlight: The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA Intern

Michigan’s sole rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, is a rare sight to see for residents of the Lower Peninsula. When compared to other rattlesnakes found throughout the United States, the Massasauga is the smallest and has the least toxic venom. These snakes are known as pit vipers, which means they are equipped with heat-sensing organs between their eyes and nose on either side of the head that serves as a set of infrared eyes that operate separately from the eyes and nose that allows the animal to see heat.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake could be found in a variety of wetlands and upland woods all throughout the Lower Peninsula. They are becoming more rare in many areas they used to inhabit due to wetland loss and human interference. This species is listed in Michigan as a “species of special concern” and state law protects them.

People have come up with many misconceptions about snakes and often think they attack and bite if they are disturbed. Like many other species of snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a very shy and sluggish reptile. They prefer to avoid confrontation with humans and are not prone to striking unless heavily provoked.  These reptiles have a thick body and a slender head and neck. They are painted with dark brown rectangular patches that are offset by light brown or grey background tones. Adults can reach between two and three feet in length.  Young baby snakes do not have rattles, but they have a single “button” on their tails, with a new segment added to their forming rattle after each shedding of their skin which happens several times per year. This snake is unique because they are the only species of snake with elliptical vertical pupils in their eyes, like a cat’s eye.

During the spring, the Massasaugas use open shallow wetlands and shrub swamps to thrive in. During the summer, they move upland to drier areas and can be found sunning themselves in open fields and grassy meadows. Populations of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake are typically found in prairie fens because they utilize the diversity of the fens and the unique habitats they provide. They use the land to forage, bask and conceive young.

Many sanctuaries protected by the Michigan Nature Association also protect the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, typically sanctuaries containing a prairie fen. MNA works hard to protect and restore the fens to benefit species that rely specifically on them. To find ways to get involved, visit www.michigananture.org.

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Species Spotlight: The Mitchell’s satyr butterfly

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The Mitchell’s satyr butterfly. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

The Mitchell’s satyr butterfly is considered one of the world’s rarest butterflies. Historically, it was found in New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland. Today, it is only found in 19 sites throughout Michigan and Indiana.

The Mitchell’s satyr butterfly is a dark brown, medium sized butterfly with a wingspan ranging from 1.5 to 1.75 inches. The undersides of their wings contain orange bands and a row of four to five black eyespots surrounded by yellow rings. The three spots in the center are always the largest.

In July, females lay their tiny eggs close to ground on young leaves of plants, usually on the undersides of the leaves or on the stems. The eggs hatch within seven to eleven days. The caterpillar feeds on sedges and hibernates under the snow during the winter months to later emerge and resume its development and form a cocoon. In late June and July, the butterfly emerges to live its adult life for about two weeks.

These butterflies are the most geographically restricted species of eastern butterfly. This is because they require a special type of wetland habitat to survive. These wetlands are only found in prairie fens, which globally rare and very vulnerable because they are only found in parts of the midwest that were carved by glaciers. Prairie fens are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in Michigan. They are low-nutrient grassy wetlands with peat soils that have a basic pH balance. They have a unique diversity of plants and animals specific to the fens due to their soil and alkaline groundwater that feeds into it from seeps and springs. Tamarack trees, poison sumac, sedges and a variety of wildflowers call the prairie fens their home.

This species was put on the endangered species list on June 25, 1991 for a number of reasons, but the main reason was loss of habitat and land modification. Many of the fens the butterflies are native to have been altered for agriculture and land development. This has also led to invasive species of plants that make the land unsuitable for the butterflies. Natural processes like wildfires, changes in water levels and flooding from beavers have been eliminated from the fens. A Federal Recovery Plan has been completed which guides conservation efforts for the butterfly and its habitat. The Department of Natural Resources also received a grant in 2006 that provides a framework for managing prairie fens for the butterflies.

The Michigan Nature Association currently has 14 sanctuaries that contain prairie fens. MNA began working to conserve Michigan’s prairie fens in 1961 and still continues efforts today in order to protect these habitats and the wildlife that depend on them. MNA’s efforts to benefit the fen and the butterflies include prescribed burns to help restore the habitat and the removal of invasive plants. To get involved, visit www.michigannature.org.

MSU Students Make a Difference at Goose Creek Grasslands

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Where would you expect to find a group of about 30 college and graduate students on cold, snowy Saturday morning in mid-February? If the group is Dr. Emily Grman’s restoration ecology class, you might find them at MNA’s Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary. While some of their classmates were still lying warmly in bed, Dr. Grman’s students were wielding loppers, pruning saws, and PVC herbicide applicators against glossy buckthorn to further the restoration of the prairie fen at Goose Creek.

Restoration at Goose Creek has been a lengthy progress. In 2003, MNA’s former stewardship director Sherri Laier began efforts by removing glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from along the Cement City Highway. The shrub had colonized a spoil pile from a drainage improvement project and had already aggressively invaded portions of the fen. The shrub grows rapidly, produces many berries, and both shades out native vegetation as well as preventing the accumulation of enough fuel to carry a fire.

Fire is the main process by which prairie fens were maintained in earlier times. Fires set by Native Americans would spread from surrounding uplands (usually oak savanna) into the fen, and rejuvenate the rich layer of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers that make prairie fens both picturesque as well as biologically rich. Fire also sets back shrubs, both native and non-native, which, absent periodic disturbance, will tend to expand in fens.

MNA conducted the first prescribed burn at Goose Creek in 2004, after native vegetation bounced back in the space previously occupied by glossy buckthorn. Since then, nine additional prescribed burns have been conducted, covering most of the sanctuary.

In early April of this year, two more burns are planned at Goose Creek. One of those burns will take place where the MSU students were hard at work clearing buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Glossy buckthorn is killed by cutting the shrub near to the ground, and then applying concentrated herbicide to the stem, which is taken to the roots. This is a precise method of delivering herbicide to the plant. The cut buckthorn branches are collected in piles which can be burned either separately or during a prescribed burn.

Students were rewarded with a nice harbinger of Spring – the cry of sandhill cranes – despite the cold temperatures. Students also saw bluebirds, horned larks, and abundant praying mantis egg cases. Several students expressed interest in helping with the prescribed burns.

MNA’s regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz would like to thank the students for helping out at Goose Creek, Dr. Grman for organizing the trip, and regular volunteers Eugene Lidster, Ken Ross, Mike Roys and Heather Smith, who helped form the students into effective restoration strike teams.

The group after a hard day's work!

MNA expects to conduct prescribed burns at Goose Creek in early April. With usual weather conditions (rain in April) the process occurrs surprising rapidly, with the most obvious evidence of a prescribed burn gone just two weeks after the burn takes place. The sanctuary is worth a visit any time, but it is especially rewarding to observe the resurgence of native vegetation from a blackened landscape.

Dr. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral associate in Lars Brudvig’s lab at MSU, interested in the restoration of Michigan prairies. In an upcoming blog post, she will write about her research comparing the plant diversity at prairie remnants (some of which included MNA sanctuaries) to prairie reconstructions.

The Odyssey Explores Lefglen’s Prairie Fen

By Tina Patterson and Dave Wendling

Goldenrod at Lefglen

Goldenrod throughout the sanctuary. Photo by Dave Wendling

A hot and sunny Sunday, August 26 found 18 avid hikers congregating at the Wolf Lake Community Park in Jackson County before heading out to Lefglen Nature Sanctuary.  Many of the hikers were people who cared deeply for this sanctuary; some were neighbors like Sue Miller, who donated an easement to MNA on the north part of the sanctuary. One of the hikers, Val Vance, grew up here and used the sanctuary as her playground as a child.  Stewards Julia Van Aken, Craig Robson, and Heidi Doman, who have worked to make both the north and south trails welcoming, determined the longer south trail, which included a fen, would be of more interest as more would be seen after the hot dry summer we have experienced.

As we ducked and weaved to avoid the poison sumac, we were awed by the beauty of the prairie fen. This time of year is a great time to visit a prairie fen since many of the wildflowers are in bloom.  Shrubby cinquefoil with its beautiful yellow flowers loves calcified sites like this. Two special species of goldenrod thrive here – the Riddles goldenrod and the flat-topped Ohio goldenrod, and to our delight, both were in full bloom. Craig pointed out the dainty flowers of the Kalm’s lobelia. Special treats were finding grass-of-Parnassus and a lone fringed gentian.

Hikers at Lefglen

Hikers along the trail at Lefglen. Photo by Tina Patterson

After the fen some hikers decided they had had enough for the day and headed back for cold drinks and cookies while the rest of us then explored the upland oak hickory forest with its pockets of wet marshes.  The jewel-weed was spectacular along the edges of many of the wet areas. Craig, whose passion is birds, stated that the threatened Cerulean warbler is found here, along with many other birds like the scarlet tanager, pileated woodpecker, and many migrating warblers. Someone spotted a black and white warbler. Val showed us an artesian well that was drilled by her father, Fred Hurford, years ago that is still flowing into one of the marshes on the sanctuary.  We were thrilled to find the interrupted fern growing among cinnamon ferns in one of the marshes.

Our two mile hike allowed us to only see a small part of the 208-acre Lefglen Nature Sanctuary. Hikers were on the lookout for some of the 690 native plant species that thrive here as well as 50 species of birds, eight species of salamanders, ten species of mammals, and seven kinds of reptiles that make the sanctuary their home. One can only imagine how happy Lefty and Glenna Levengood would be to hear people share their personal stories about the Lefglen Nature Sanctuary and that will be cared for and protected for a long time.

We hope you’ll be able to join us on the remaining four Odyssey Tours in the Upper Peninsula  September 23-30! Details are on the MNA website.

MNA Staff Begins Burn Season at Big Valley

By Mitch Lex

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

On Thursday March 22, Stewardship Coordinator Andrew Bacon set out with fellow MNA Regional Stewardship Organizers Katherine Hollins and Matt Schultz to conduct the first set of controlled burns of the season. One of them was at Big Valley Nature Sanctuary. With the assistance of five volunteers, the stewardship staff was able to successfully burn 10 acres of the Big Valley sanctuary—a process that is vital to the ecological health of the prairie fen and oak upland communities found there.

The essential burn invigorates the native flora and fauna at the sanctuary by damaging the encroaching woody overgrowth, and creates additional opportunity for sun to infiltrate the understory and create future habitat. Without prescribed burns, hardwood canopies can become too dense and crowd out the essential undergrowth altering the composition of the prairie and forest floors. Invasive species such as the autumn olive and dogwood are kept in check by prescribed burns.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

Several rare insect species found at Big Valley Nature Sanctuary as well as numerous species of snake also depend on burning for the long term survival of the population. The endangered tamarack tree cricket and poweshiek skipperling both rely on the open canopy characteristics found in prairie fens at Big Valley. To protect reptiles, insects and other species that have difficulties escaping burns, MNA patrols the burn unit prior to the burn and moves individuals out of the area. Smaller units are burned in sanctuaries with fire-sensitive species to protect the overall population. Backing fire is used as much as possible in sites with more reptiles, giving them more time to take cover.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

Although prescribed burning is essential to the protection of many of MNA’s sanctuaries, it does not come without risk. The MNA staff plans out burn units several months in advance and must track the burn history of each sanctuary to ensure the areas of most concern are being treated. Following a burn, MNA monitors the results.

How to Spot a Prairie Fen

By Jake McCarthy

The next time you’re out walking in nature and surrounded by sedges with damp feet, take a look around. You might find yourself in a fen, one of Michigan’s most diverse habitats. Prairie fens are nutrient-rich wetlands that use groundwater to support a wide range of plants and animals. Globally scarce, they are home to species including Eastern massasauga rattlesnake and pink and white lady slipper. Fens also improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding.

Fens are fragile, though, and need to be recognized and protected in order to thrive. MNA protects and manages a number of fens in Michigan, including the Bullard Lake Fen Plant Preserve in Livingston County and the Robert T. Brown Nature Sanctuary in Houghton County. It can take 10,000 years for a fen to form naturally, so it’s important to do what we can to conserve the fens we have.

Here are a few ways to identify a fen:

Soil – Peat and marl are common soil types in fens. Peat, made of decaying plant matter, is spongy and bounces when you walk on it. Marl is a gray-colored and clayish soil.

Water Source – Unlike bogs and swamps, which are rainwater-fed, fens receive water from seeps and springs. Seeps and springs are sources of ground water that have reached the surface. It’s easier to spot both in winter because steady temperatures means they’re unlikely to freeze.

Water Level – The water level in a fen remains fairly constant. Even after a heavy rain, it won’t show significant standing water like a swamp. This is because fens draw water from the ground, not precipitation.

Hummocks – Fens are rife with hummocks, small mounds of sedges that haven’t decomposed because of the water. Hummocks are a great place for a variety of plants to grow, and dot the face of any healthy fen.

For more information on prairie fens in Michigan, how to spot them and restoration tips for landowners, visit MSU’s Prairie Fen Companion website.

To learn more about MNA’s fens and efforts to conserve them, visit our website. To join MNA staff in managing fens with prescribed burns, contact regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz for more information at mschultz@michigannature.org.