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.

Spring has Sprung?

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

As usual, Michigan is having a little bit of trouble deciding when it wants to transition into springtime. Don’t let the occasional snow shower worry you, there are a few sure signs that you can look for to keep up hope that spring is on its way! Michigan’s beloved flora and fauna will bring the sounds and sights of springtime, such as the spring peeper, the American robin, and wild trilliums.

spring peeper - tim mayo

Spring peeper. Photo: Tim Mayo.

Some music to your ears might be the classic “tinkling of bells” of the Michigan spring peeper. Around early March, when the ground begins thawing, this abundant amphibian species begins its mating season. The peeping you hear is the male frog calling out to potential mates. The more intense the peeping, the more likely the males are to attract their desired female. If you live near wetland areas, such as a damp woodland, marsh, or pond, you are likely to hear these creatures singing away on a warming spring night.

american robin - taran rampersad

American robin. Photo: Tara Rampersad.

While the spring peepers sing you to sleep, another sign that spring is near is being awoken by the return of migratory birds. The classic harbinger of spring is the American robin, Michigan’s state bird. You might recognize its song from the often repeated whistle of cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. When the average temperature fluctuates around 37 degrees, the male robins will be the first to make themselves known as they establish territories and begin feeding. Female robins will return a couple weeks later to begin building nests and feeding on worms from the thawing grounds. You’ll hear them start singing as they arrive on their breeding territories!

Another bird that is usually a first sign of spring in Michigan is the red-winged blackbird, with some arriving as early as mid-February. Males will sing their song, conk-la-ree from a high perch, awaiting the female response of a series of several chits. These birds prefer wetland areas, so if you are near standing water and vegetation, look out for these birds. You will also start seeing more shorebirds and hearing more owls and woodpeckers. The return of these birds from late March through May marks prime bird watching season.

trillium - mary bohling

Trillium. Photo: Mary Bohling.

You might notice the budding of trees, and if you look closely some wildflowers are indicators that spring is on its way. The trillium is one that you might see first, a three petaled flower with dark green leaves and pale green accents. The arrival of the wildflowers ushers in the return of pollinators to help speed the spring process along!

Celebrate Spring with MNA!

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Spring has sprung, and has already brought with it markedly warmer weather and the beginning buds of plants sprouting back to life. In addition to numerous sanctuaries ideal for Michiganders eager to invigorate their muscles and minds after another winter, MNA has several upcoming events and activities for nature enthusiasts to look forward to. It’s a great time to be outdoors and reconnect with nature and one another through seasonal family-friendly fun!

Participate in a 5K

The Karner Blue Butterfly and Family Fun Run & 5K will be hosted Saturday, May 20 at Millennium Park in Grand Rapids as part of the Pure Michigan™ FITness Series Challenge; in addition, there will be a Kids 1 Mile Fun Run as well. As if being active in the great outdoors and supporting a good cause isn’t motivation enough, participants who earn a mere 5 points will be entered for grand prize drawing for a trip up the Mackinac Bridge Tower! Proceeds from the race go to the protection of habitat for the endangered Karner blue. Read up on this small yet splashy species and its preferred habitat here.

Celebrate Earth Day

A fun and earth-friendly activity is planned for visitors to the MNA booth Sunday, April 23 during the Ann Arbor 46th annual Earth Day Festival, held from 12-4pm at the Leslie Science and Nature Center. The festival is a great opportunity to engage in activities that celebrate Earth and learn about environmental topics through live-animal presentations, naturalist-led hikes, informational presentations and discussions. You can even dress up as your favorite plant or animal! Nature lovers of all ages are welcome. No signup is necessary.

Earth Day - GVSU interns and Five Lakes steward

Visit a sanctuary

Many MNA sanctuaries that are open to the public are ideal destinations for visitors to enjoy and connect with nature through various outdoor activities like scenic hikes and peaceful walks, seasonal wildflower displays, birding and photography. Below is a list of MNA sanctuaries selected for these springtime activities, but a more comprehensive list allowing you to search for sanctuaries in your area can be viewed here.

Sharon Zahrfeld Memorial Nature Sanctuary

Zahrfeld

Keweenaw Shores No 1 Nature Sanctuary

Keweenaw Shores 1 - Charles Eshbach (2)

Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary

estivant-pines-2-photo-by-charles-eshbach.jpg

Twin Waterfalls Plant Preserve

olson-falls-3-mike-zajczenko.jpg

Trillium Trail Nature Sanctuary

Prairie trillium at Trillium Ravine

Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary

EPSON DSC picture

Become a volunteer

MNA coordinates numerous volunteer workdays throughout the year, providing participants with information and experience on the removal of invasive species for the preservation of native plant communities that form the basis of ecologically important habitats. Find a day to get involved with workdays in your area by keeping tabs on the MNA events calendar! Upcoming workdays include Dolan Nature Sanctuary, Dowagiac Woods, Mystery Valley Karst Preserve, Riley-Shurte Woods, Black Creek Nature Sanctuary, and Grinnell Nature Sanctuary. Also upcoming is a guided nature hike through Dorion Rooks Nature Sanctuary.

workday at Goose Creek

Become a steward

Those looking for additional involvement can become a steward for MNA. It is both easy and rewarding, with a minimum requirement of visiting a sanctuary once per year and completing a comprehensive monitor report. The ideal steward also leads field trips and educational events, marks boundaries and maintains trails at the sanctuary. If you are interested in becoming a steward, please contact MNA Stewardship Coordinator Andrew Bacon by email at abacon@michigannature.org or by calling the MNA office at (866) 223-2231.

Bill McEachern and David Mancini at Kernan - Rachel Maranto

Signs of Spring: Amphibians Return to Vernal Pools

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

For many Michigan residents, there are a few tell-tale signs of spring: Springtime birds chirping after being gone for a long winter, green grass growing, flowers sprouting, and days getting longer. But MNA stewards have one more thing to tell them that spring is here: Salamanders and other amphibians migrating to vernal pools.

A salamander MNA steward Dave Richmond found in his yard in early April. Photo by Dave Richmond.

A salamander MNA steward Dave Richmond found in his yard in early April. Photo by Dave Richmond.

Each spring, amphibians make mass (well, mini) migrations to vernal pools and ponds, usually at night during or after the first warm rainstorm. Once at the vernal pools, these amphibians will mate and lay their eggs before returning to the forest. Dave Richmond, a steward at the Edna S. Newnan Nature Sanctuary in St. Clair County, spotted some of the first salamanders of the season early this month—which means spring must be here, after all.

Vernal pools are natural, temporary bodies of water that occur in a shallow depression. These pools typically fill during the spring or fall and may dry in the summer; have no viable populations of fish; and provide essential breeding and nursery habitat for several organisms, including amphibians. Many amphibian eggs have physical properties or toxic compounds that help deter predators, but amphibians that are dependent on vernal pools lack these protections. As a result, their eggs and young are vulnerable to both aquatic and terrestrial predators. Not all vernal pools dry up every year, but each pool has some feature that prevents fish from living there, such as low oxygen concentrations during the summer or shallow levels that allow the pool to freeze to the bottom during the winter.

The spring issue of Michigan Nature magazine includes a feature on vernal pools—keep an eye out to learn more about these unique and important habitats!