Six signs you might be travelling with a naturalist

Naturalists are a special breed of people.  While many of us easily miss the signs of life happening in the ecosystems we’re in and around, these people catch it all.

"Bug Camp" on Fletcher Creek

“Bug Camp” on Fletcher Creek

If you find yourself in a vehicle with one, see if these observations don’t ring true:

1) You find among the trash and dirt on the floor of the vehicle snake skin, sea shells, and river and beach rocks.

2) She keeps trying to identify tree species at 55-70 miles per hour.

3) His attention drifts from the road to the raptor soaring near the highway

4) She calls out the scientific name of the road kill you just passed.

5) He starts grumbling about the invasive plant species he can see when he parks the car.

6) Along with the ketchup packets and napkins, you find field guides, bird calls, and binoculars in the glove compartment.

What have you found when riding with a naturalist?

Here fishy, fishy

August is here and in the northern hemisphere that means the last full month of summer. I didn’t think I’d ever write a post about this month’s featured creature, but it does make sense. I’m talking about fish. Here in the Great Lakes our fishery is valued anywhere from $1.5 billion (yes, that’s with a B) to as high as $7 billion annually. Of course, that number is only taking into account the economic value of sport and commercial fishing. What’s usually missing from numbers like that is the ecosystem services that nature provides freely.
I’m supposing that most of you don’t have fish in your backyards (koi and the like excluded), probably slightly more of you do have them in your neighborhoods. We all live in watersheds, so it is highly probable that you do have fish in your neighborhood, if you’ve got something more than a vernal pond.

You should be able to find fish, minnows especially, in most bodies of water in the Midwest.

You should be able to find fish, minnows especially, in most bodies of water in the Midwest.

There are over 180 species of fish in the Great Lakes and I certainly can’t identify more than a handful of them. What I’ll lead you to then is a family of fish that more than likely live near you, if you happen to reside in the Midwest. The family is cyprinidae (Latin for carp) which includes, amazingly enough, carp! The family is the minnow family, which has become a catch-all term—at least in Michigan—for small fish. Quite often, if a small fish is in a school, then they are labeled minnows, whether accurately or not. They tend to be used as bait fish, carp excepting, because most don’t grow to be more than twelve inches, and most are well under that in adulthood.
What you are likely to see in some body of water in the Great Lakes watershed is one of these five kinds of fish (there are a few more members in this family, but unless you’re excited about sorting fish, these won’t matter): dace (7 species), chub (6 species), carp (the biggest of the minnows (2 naturalized species), 10 kinds of minnows, and 23(!) species of shiners.
Pond, lake, stream, or river--even if you can't see the fish, they are probably there.

Pond, lake, stream, or river–even if you can’t see the fish, they are probably there.

Let me make this easy. The fish in the minnow family have an elongated body shape as opposed to pan-fish which are rounder. Their caudal, or tail fins, tend to be forked and their mouths tend to be terminal, or found at the end of their snout. Daces, however, have superior facing mouths, meaning they face upward to help feed on prey found at the surface of the water. This chart does a better job than me for sort through all these “icthy” creatures, click on the link.
Fish are probably going to be the most difficult creatures to identify in your neighborhood. After all, you’ll probably need a net to catch them to be able to observe them up close; they hide well, and they are commonly found in water, which you are, probably, commonly not.
You probably don't have a seine net.  That's OK, I don't either.

You probably don’t have a seine net. That’s OK, I don’t either.

If you do have some of these fish in your neighborhood, then there’s a good chance that your water quality is high. Several of these species possess low-tolerance of “dirty” water.
Work on becoming a "fish whisperer" and you'll always catch something.  But the nets truly help.

Work on becoming a “fish whisperer” and you’ll always catch something. But the nets truly help.

So, if you have a body of water bigger than a puddle in your yard or neighborhood, take some time to explore it. If you notice fish, try to catch a few simply for the sake of identification. Or perhaps you’ve been blessed with a free supply of baitfish.

Get in the water, find some fish!

Get in the water, find some fish!

Why Some Immigrants Deserve Capital Punishment

ImageThis month’s challenge is something near and (deathly) dear to my heart: the eradication of invasive species.  One reason to get to know what belongs in your ecosystem is so that you can help keep out that which doesn’t belong.  Obviously, if you are ignorant of the natives, you won’t recognize the aliens which will inevitably arrive.

So, here’s the thing, organisms move, deliberately and accidentally, all the time.  When said organism arrives in a new landscape it will try to fit in and survive.  Some do, some don’t.  Some that do survive can be benign, like honeybees, or some can cause severe problems like garlic mustard or zebra mussels.  These invasions have been happening since probably the beginning of life on Earth, but people have, at times, accelerated or worsened invasions (look up pythons in Florida for starters).

Once a foreign creature establishes a population, the problems begin, though we humans won’t notice it for some time.  Again, some organisms are relatively benign, these are alien or exotic species, they can exploit a niche without much damage or displacement, much like most of our agricultural products or perhaps horses (as usual, I’m speaking from a North American perspective–see the working home page tab).  Then there are the invasives.  These are the plants and animals that not only survive but tend to crowd out and kill the natives and completely disrupt or destroy the ecosystem for which they were given a green card.  They can do this because they generally have no predators keeping the population in check.  No diseases to hold back their numbers; no reason not to survive and thrive, multiply and subdue. 

Every state in the United States has some invasive species.  Some more than others.  Florida and Hawaii have the most.  Here in Michigan and the surrounding Great Lakes we have over 183.  Some of the worst offenders in SE Michigan are garlic mustard (pictured above), common and glossy buckthorn, several varieties of honeysuckle, autumn olive, zebra and quagga mussels, Eurasian milfoil, the emerald ash borer (which has killed nearly every single ash tree in lower Michigan and upper Ohio), and several more. 

This is where all your “training” comes in: if you’ve been a faithful reader and and DO-er of the word rather than just a reader, then you should have some sense of what belongs in your ecosystem.  Plants are probably the easiest to identify since they don’t move much, but perhaps some insects, birds, amphibians (the bullfrog, native to Michigan, is an invasive in California), reptiles, and mammals truly don’t belong in your yard or neighborhood.  Pigeons, or rock doves, are a start, but good luck trying to eradicate them.  No, you’re better off with plants.  Check with a university extension office in your area, or your department of natural resources, to learn what might be setting up illegal areas of employment and reproduction in your area.  If you find some unwelcome immigrants (in some cases, many invasives are illegal to possess or transport in your area) call the authorities or better yet take the law into your own hands: kill them, without quarter.  Though you should find out first if it is even safe to handle the alien.

Here are several resources (for Michigan or the midwest) that are well worth the price: My favorite is (with its verbose title) A Field Identification Guide to Invasive Plants in Michigan’s Natural Communities, Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest, and for a more expansive view, Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants.

Seek and ye shall find, then kill, kill, kill!ImageTeasel: interesting in appearance, but it doesn’t belong in Michigan


ImageAutum olive berries: they’re like Doritos for migratory birds.  Try to run a half-marathon powered only by Doritos.  Tell me how well you did.

How to make love to a naked tree

I know, I know, I stooped to such a base level to get your attention, but it’s worked hasn’t it?  The title isn’t that far off from what this month’s challenge is.  In the verdant seasons, tree identification is much easier.  After all, deciduous trees are covered with their solar panels, namely leaves.  In these northern climes, those trees undress and bask nakedly from November through March.

So, how does one identify skeletal trees?  Well, the easy way is to ID them during the growing season, IMG_0166but that doesn’t help in February, now does it?  The first step I would suggest is to just walk around.  Carefully observe bark patterns and texture.  For instance, some say sugar maples have “peanut butter valleys.”  These would be light brown vertical striations between plates of bark.  Black cherry trees appear to have “burnt-potato-chip bark.”

Notice the shape the branches form: is it roundish? tall and narrow?  irregular?  Simply looking with intent at trees is going to acclimate your eyes to patterns that exist all around your neighborhood.

The second way (and for full disclosure I use it all the time) is to use a guide much like this one.  A guide like this one moves you to attend to branches and bark, since the easiest identifier has gone missing.

It does take more effort to ID trees in the winter, especially mature trees which don’t have branches close to your level for examination.  Still, with some effort it can be done.

So, take a walk outside–the fresh air is invigorating–and ogle some naked trees.  You’ll be surprised at what you might learn. IMG_0290

Challenge #3: Trees

The past two challenges have involved things that moved from yard to yard; this month’s challenge is about less ambulatory organisms.  Not ents, but trees; it is autumn, after all.

So, I’ll make this even easier, you won’t have to leave your yard.  Simply identify the trees in your yard.  You can even throw in shrubs, but not bushes, mind you.

Take time to absorb the color changes happening now–at least for us folks in the northern US.  ID your tree(s) down to the species, but if you have none in your yard, post about your neighbor’s trees or those in your ‘hood.

Challenge #1 Answered

I know I have a few readers–at least people who have flirted with the post–are you going to take up the challenge for August and post mammals you’ve seen?  Feel free to, even later than this month (which is over in less than two days).

For my yard, and neighborhood, I’ve spotted the following (in August–I could make a longer list for sightings at other times):

  • Red squirrels
  • Fox squirrels
    • Grey squirrels and the black sub-species
    • raccoons
    • bats (probably little brown bats)
    • deer mice
    • chipmunks

    That’s all for this month.  What did you see?