Species Spotlight: Eastern Box Turtle

As Michigan’s only true terrestrial turtle, the Eastern box turtle might often be mistaken for a small tortoise. It is one of four box turtle species native to the United States. Though an uncommon find, it ranges throughout Michigan’s lower peninsula. It spends its life in small patches of open woodlands, sometimes bordering open fields or wetland. Throughout its life, the Eastern box turtle remains small- to mid-size, growing between 4-8 inches in length. It can be extremely long-lived – occasionally over a century.

Their unique hinged shell Box Turtleallows them to retract their head, tail, legs and arms for full protection. Males and females can be most readily distinguished by the color of their eyes. While males often have red eyes, females have yellow to match the vivid markings on their dark carapaces and bodies. They reach sexual maturity at about 10 years of age. Mature females lay between 3-8 eggs per clutch, and breed at most once per year. During winter, they burrow into mud or bury themselves beneath leaf litter for warmth and camouflage.

Like most turtle species, the Eastern box is an opportunistic omnivore. This means it will eat just about anything food-like that it comes across, including insects, worms, grasses, fruit, mushrooms, flowers, and even carrion and garbage.

Because this species is long-lived and slow to breed, populations can be difficult to exact. However, the species has gained status as Special Concern in the state of Michigan. Habitat loss and fragmentation are primary concerns to populations, as urban and agricultural development extend further into their range and roads cut through much of what is left. If you winners.jpgcome across a turtle you suspect to be an Eastern box turtle, admire it from a comfortable distance. If the turtle is found on or near a road, escort it back to safety first!

MNA’s upcoming Turtle Trot Family Fun Run & 5K will promote efforts to preserve habitat for turtles throughout Michigan, among them the Eastern box turtle. Every runner receives a t-shirt and a medal for their contribution to the preservation of this unique Michigan native. Join us on Sunday, September 24 for a fun run / scenic walk along the Huron River in Ann Arbor! To learn more visit https://runsignup.com/Race/MI/AnnArbor/5KTurtleTrot.

Also join us for a Pizza Pre-Party at Blaze Pizza! On Friday, September 22 from 3-7pm you can present this flyer when you order your fast-fire’d creation and Blaze will donate a portion of their proceeds to MNA and protecting Michigan’s natural heritage!
Blaze Pizza is located at 3500 Washtenaw Ave, Suite D, Ann Arbor.
Bring this flyer: http://michigannature.iescentral.com/filelibrary/Blaze%20Pizza%20Fundraising%20Flyer%20Ann%20Arbor.pdf

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Species Spotlight: Karner Blue Butterfly

Karner blue butterfly

Photo: Marilyn Keigley

By Eugene Kutz, MNA Intern

Butterflies embody the transcendent journey of nature. Fascinated with their metamorphic abilities, many harbor a love for the butterfly’s diverse incarnations. Sadly, there are ongoing threats to the habitats of many of these butterfly species. One such species is the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), which according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined by 99% over the past 100 years, 90% of which occurred in the past 15 years.

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Photo: Animals Time

Found near the Great Lakes and the northeast United States, this subspecies of the Melissa blue butterfly have a wingspan of about one inch. Individual adults usually live only five days or so, with females living up to two weeks. They are identified as male and female from telling characteristics. Males have a silvery or dark blue topside with narrow black margins—whereas female wings are gray-brown with a blue topside, featuring orange bands inside a black border. Both males and females sport the same gray underside with beautiful orange crescents along the edge of the wings, with scattered black spots circled with white.

In Michigan, Karner blues have historically lived in the western and southern Lower Peninsula. The amount of available habitat for Karners has reduced, causing a significant population decline. The Karner blue suffered extreme habitat loss and degradation, causing a massive population drop from 1970 to 1980, becoming federally listed as endangered by 1992. It has since been listed as a Michigan threatened species (plants and animals likely to become endangered). The species is currently surviving in at least 10 southern Michigan counties.

Karners prefer to live in oak savannas and pine barrens, and are found inhabiting areas that are partially shady with sandy soil. Previously living in a range from Maine to Minnesota, the Karner blue butterfly now exists only in smaller populations in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York and Minnesota and is believed to have disappeared permanently in Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Ontario.

Lupine By USFWS Joel Trick

Lupine By USFWS; Joel Trick

The wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the only food source for the Karner caterpillar larvae, and adults feed on the flowering plant nectar. Yet the habitats do not completely overlap, the Karner population range occupying only the north-most growth extent of the lupine. These factors greatly restrict where the Karner can live, endangering the species. Habitats are also lost when plants like the lupine lose in competition with other vegetation in these habitat ranges, like pine and oak trees.

Other primary causes of Karner blue habitat destruction are land development and a lack of natural disturbance, such as wildfire and grazing by large mammals. Without fire, the kind of open-canopy habitats lupine plants require become overgrown into closed-canopies. These events maintain their habitat by keeping forests from encroaching and adding in the growth of plants like the lupine. Now the Karner blue mostly survives in degraded openings, old fields, and utility and highway rights-of-way.

Researchers continue to search for the best way to manage their population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have created and implanted a Recover Plan for protecting and restoring the Karner blue. Many butterfly collectors may wish to have a Karner blue for its rarity, but due to their low numbers even collecting a few individuals could harm their survival, and to legally collect one must obtain a permit from the FWS. In some places, the butterfly’s habitats are managed and protected. Wisconsin has implemented a statewide Habitat Conservation Plan that permits human activities in areas that support the species and its habitat. Zoos have reintroduced Karner blues by propagating them in new suitable habitats in Ohio, Indiana and New Hampshire in areas where the Karner has previously been extirpated.

At MNA sanctuaries, visitors can observe these beautiful butterflies. MNA is fighting for the conservation of the Karner blue butterfly, restoring critical habitat in several counties. MNA is protecting these “conservation-reliant” species through active restoration and stewardship, using techniques like prescribed fire, to maintain their habitat.

There are many ways people can play a critical role in protecting the future of this species by supporting local conservation efforts. In addition, help protect the Karner blue butterfly by conserving or managing your property for Karner blue and other rare species, contacting local Landowner Incentives Program (LIP) Biologists, learning more about federal programs available to landowners, supporting the use of prescribed fire to maintain prairies and savannas, and limiting or avoiding the use of pesticides near Karner blue butterfly habitats.

Learn more about this unique endangered butterfly at the Michigan Nature Association’s third annual Karner Blue Butterfly Family Fun Run & 5K on May 20 at Millennium Park in Grand Rapids. This event will help to raise awareness for endangered species and habitat conservation efforts. Sign up at https://runsignup.com/Race/MI/Walker/KarnerBlueButterflyRun.

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Karner Blue Butterfly Run in Grand Rapids. Photo: Pamela Ferris

 

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.

Species Spotlight: Poweshiek Skipperling

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

To me, one of the most interesting things about the outdoors is its variety. Each species provides a vital link in its habitat, regardless of how small it may be. One of Michigan’s tiny yet fascinating creatures is the Poweshiek skipperling.

Though moth-like in appearance, the Poweshiek skipperling is a small butterfly that resides in tallgrass prairie. Its upper wings are a dark grayish-brown tone, with orange markings on the forewing. A distinctive pale area on the butterfly’s hindwing sets it apart from moth counterparts, as does a dark green stripe on Poweshiek skipperling caterpillars. Males and females are very similar in appearance, as they both have a wingspan of roughly one inch. However, females can be identified by a subtle brand on the forewing.

A Poweshiek skipperling on a black-eyed Susan. Photo: Dwayne Bagdero.

A Poweshiek skipperling on a black-eyed Susan.
Photo: Dwayne Bagdero.

The main flight period for the Poweshiek skipperling is mid June to mid July. During this time, the butterfly can be spotted fluttering low in the grass near nectar sources, especially tending to prefer black-eyed Susan flowers in Michigan. Its flight involves excessive wing movement that exerts little forward velocity, distinguishing the species from other butterflies and moths. This slow, bouncy pattern resembles skipping, which gives the Poweshiek skipperling its name.

The butterfly has been sporadically reported in various areas throughout the Midwest, as far east as Ohio and as far west as Minnesota. In Michigan, the Poweshiek skipperling resides in select prairie fens in the southeast region. These fens are wetland communities mainly composed of sedges and grasses, and are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in Michigan. Prairie fens house over two dozen of the state’s rarest plants and animals, including the Poweshiek skipperling.

However, because Michigan Poweshiek skipperlings are limited to this specific prairie fen habitat, they are experiencing a severe population decline and are currently state threatened. Prairie fens are extremely delicate areas, limited by invasive species, gravel mining, and woodland invasion. Without scheduled burn or mow periods, fen plants grow too tall to house this sensitive insect, limiting their survival.

Addressing this concern, MNA protects prairie fens in 14 of its sanctuaries in southern Michigan. In order to prevent the fens from succeeding into forest or shrubland, MNA holds prescribed burns of these areas. Though some of MNA’s especially sensitive fens have restricted access, Lefglen Nature Sanctuary, Lakeville Swamp, and Goose Creek Grasslands are all open to the public. MNA also holds scheduled field trips and work days in many of these areas, including upcoming volunteer days at Goose Creek Grasslands, located in Lenawee County, on June 10th and June 14th.  These visits allow guests to help protect these delicate habitats.

Species Spotlight: The Eastern Whip-poor-will

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

As the weather begins to get warmer, all I’ve been able to think about is summer. I like the long summer days, but what I really love are the cool summer nights. When I think of those nights, one thing comes to mind: my favorite bird species, the eastern whip-poor-will.

The eastern whip-poor-will is a medium-sized bird with a large, rounded head and a stout chest that tapers to a long tail and wings. It has large, dark eyes; a bold, dark central stripe on its crown; and pale, silvery-gray shoulder patches. Its gray and brown mottling camouflages it with leaf litter and tree bark and makes it hard to spot when it roosts in the group or on a tree limb in the daytime.

What makes the eastern whip-poor-will distinctive, though, is the call that gives the bird its namesake. Eastern whip-poor-wills may be hard to see, but they are easy to hear—their endless chanting throughout spring and summer nights has been featured in literature, poems and folk songs. The eastern whip-poor-will has an easily recognized three-syllable call that accents the first and last syllable. Each call immediately follows the other and creates a circular rhythm. If you live near an open-understory forest, you’ll most likely hear them continuously chant their loud whip-poor-will song during spring and summer evenings.

The eastern whip-poor-will has a western counterpart: the Mexican whip-poor-will. These two species were considered one species (simply called the whip-poor-will) until 2011, when they were split into two separate species based on differences in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. They have physical and vocal differences, as well: the eastern whip-poor-will lays more colorful eggs and has a faster, higher-pitched call.

Eastern whip-poor-wills live in eastern forests with open understories. They can be found in both purely deciduous and mixed deciduous-pine forests, but often live in areas with sandy soil. They spend their winters in broadleaf tropical or subtropical forests near open areas, and arrive back to their northern breeding grounds between late March and mid-May. Eastern whip-poor-wills build no nests, but the eggs, nestlings and adults are so well-camouflaged that they are extremely difficult to see despite having no nest material.

Though still common birds, eastern whip-poor-wills have experienced population decline, mostly due to a loss of open-understory forests from conversion to crops, pasture, urbanization, or dense understories from fire suppression. Eastern whip-poor-wills are on the Partners in Flight Watch List with a concern score of 14 out of 20 and are considered a Common Bird in Steep Decline. The species’ habitat is protected by various MNA sanctuaries, such as the Stephen M. Polovich Memorial Nature Sanctuary in St. Clair County.

For more information, check out the eastern whip-poor-will’s entry in Audubon’s Online Guide to North American Birds.