Push and Pull

Push and Pull

(This post was actually finished two weeks ago, but due to a failing home computer I didn’t save it like I should and I had to reconstruct the whole thing.  Apologies for missing about a month-and-a-half.)

The study of geography talks about the reasons that people immigrate and emigrate (which by the way means to come into another country or leave one’s home country, respectively), the push and pull factors.  These include:

  • famine
  • war (unfortunately all too present right now)
  • debt
  • opportunity
  • running from the past

Animals have a more limited scope when they migrate.  And the strict definition for migrate includes the idea of a return.  Animals only permanently move out if habitat is destroyed or they are extirpated.

What you probably picture when you think of "migration."  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What you probably picture when you think of “migration.” (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here in Michigan we think of migration in primarily terms of north and south–Canada geese, mallard ducks, songbirds, sandhill cranes, and monarchs all head for sunnier climes beginning in September.  But migration can happen in an east to west (or vice versa) cycle, up and down mountains, and even vertical movement through the water column.

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

All kinds of animals migrate (heck, even mold migrates!) from zooplankton to blue whales.


Migration for them is an “adaptive response to seasonal or geographic variation of resources.”  Or sometimes to breed.  The daylight length, temperature, or food sources have changed and so animals move on.

Those triggers–light, hormones, water currents–all give the signal to “pack up and head out.”  Cooler temperatures signal birds to migrate, for instance.

So, how do they do it?  Migrate, I mean.  Animals use topography, polarized light patterns bouncing off of airborne particles (which happens even on cloudy days), the stars, and olfactory and magnetic cues.  Rivers and coastlines are particularly helpful.  The most southern point in Canada (well, nearby Pelee Island is officially the southernmost point) is a sandy peninsula known as Point Pelee.  This helps guide birds across Lake Erie.  Why wouldn’t it?  It’s a giant directional signal pointing south.

How can you not know what direction to go?

How can you not know what direction to go? Photo courtesy Brian Kirchner




Some animals forage along the way, while others have gorged themselves and built up fat stores (hyperphagia) much like those who stay and hibernate.

Southeast Michigan sees the beginning of migration in August and continues even to this present point as I witnessed a flock of Canada geese pass over me this morning.  The little brown bats we observe wheeling the evening summer sky move from their tree roosts to caves for the winter.  The trout and salmon are migrating for breeding purposes (though their numbers are limited in SE Michigan).  Hummingbirds, sandhill cranes, and all kinds of warblers have exited the confines of the state. Out west, the elk migrate, and in northern Michigan there is a herd or four, but I don’t know that they migrate.

Before finishing this article let me include some random migration facts:

  • Humpback whales complete the longest mammal migration of up to 8,500 km each way.
  • Monarch butterflies, of course, have the longest insect migration from Canada and the northern US to California and Mexico in the fall–up to 4,750 km.

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

  • Rattlesnakes(!) in Alberta, Canada migrate to find dens for hibernation just slightly south of their summer grounds

As annoying as the Canada goose has become, it’s still thrilling to hear the feathery thump when they fly in their characteristic V-shaped flocks closer to the earth on the way to wherever they stay.  Occasionally, the mallards in smaller groups beat their whistling wings to find food further south.  The great blue herons will stick around, surprisingly, as long as open water exists.

So what migrates from your neighborhood?  Or perhaps you live in a winter destination?  What “new” species are just showing up?  Get outside and look around.



Sound + Vision of Spring

Sound + Vision of Spring

T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot "Spring foe"?

T.S. Eliot “Spring foe”?

Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.”  He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).

That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest.  Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.

Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

with the arrival of spring.  Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall.  Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.

There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.

Kirtland's warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

Kirtland’s warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.

For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.

Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food.  Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.

Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico.  The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.

If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow.  OK, I guess they are robin-sized.

But this isn’t one:

This non-native (image) is courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.

This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

Grackle image courtesy of Ironphoenix.org

The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.



The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings.  That’s the male, anyway.  The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.

Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.

Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:

I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.

Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet.  There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils.  And it’s not a bad smell at all.

I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.

What’s spring like in your neighborhood?

Aquaterra Update

Has your neighborhood wetland dried up yet or is it still going strong thanks to spring rain?  Or is it, like some of the wetlands and wet spots in my neighborhood,  a mosquito nursery.  They appear to be numerically stronger every day.  Speaking of those little vampires, a “new” mosquito-borne disease appears to be heading our way.

Frog mating season should be winding down for you probably.  Though the bigger frogs, green and bullfrogs, start later than the smaller ones.     Image

I’ve got four breeding pairs of red-winged blackbirds in my neighborhood now.  I’ve spotted three sets of eggs, two nests of hatchlings, and one fledgling.      Image         Image

Get out, explore your wetlands–wear boots and mosquito repellent now–and come back and report.

If all goes well, this month’s challenge will be presented by a guest.

Aqua + Terra=Wetlands

Fortuitously, I spotted on my calendar that May is American Wetlands Month (by the decree of somebody).  This is also a time of year, when in the northern climes at least, there are more wetlands present than later in the year.

Snow melt and spring rains create a soggy landscape for us.

Some areas tend to be wetter than others, some permanently so.  In fact, for a bit of land to be considered a wetland it must have standing water for at least seven consecutive days.  That means that that low spot on your driveway that holds water for three days after a rainstorm doesn’t count.

However, the “pond” down the street that is dry and cracked by July does.


In the Midwest, wetlands contain the most biodiversity over any other type of ecosystem.  Mammals like beavers, muskrats, and water shrews tend to be year-round residents.  Birds of all feathers rest, feed, nest, and breed in wetlands.  Amphibians and reptiles spend their time slithering, sunning, swimming, and jumping in the water, on logs and rocks, and nearby land.  Fish are…well, fish are where fish should be.  Countless invertebrates dwell below the water’s surface and on the plants and land and in the sky above.  Lastly, many specialized plant species can only be found in wetlands.

Lake Huron pitcher plants

Wetlands serve a purpose beyond their beauty.  They provide what is known as ecosystem services.  In a crass so-called economic age, we sometimes have to assign a dollar value on the things that nature provides for free.

Wetlands purify and filter water.  They can trap and neutralize something as disgusting as sewage waste and can decompose toxic substances, too.

As was seen with Hurricane Katrina (and others) in the American South, wetlands provide a buffer against flooding and erosion.  They hold water during drier times as well.

Wetland plants cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provide food and shelter to all kinds of creatures.  Additionally, they add oxygen and are part of the flood control built in to wetlands.

Lastly, wetlands provide numerous recreational activities from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and simply enjoying the space.

According to a late 2013 AP article,

The eight-state Great Lakes region — extending from western New York to eastern Minnesota– was the only section of the U.S. where coastal wetland acreage increased during a five-year period when scientists took extensive measurements with satellites and field photography.

The gain was modest — 13,610 acres, an area not quite as large as the New York City borough of Manhattan. Yet it happened as the rest of the nation’s coastal wetlands shrank by 360,720 acres. The loss amounted to less than 1 percent of the U.S. total, but continued a longtime negative trend.

Historically, 75% of wetland loss in Michigan can be attributed to agriculture.  Though nationwide, industry, commercial and residential development have contributed to their drainage and disappearance.

Michigan had an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands prior to European/American settlement.  Now we’re down to about 3 million.  That’s not a few dead frogs.

Wetlands can be classified into five kinds (these are freshwater only–you salties have some different kinds particular to you).


Not a Michigan wetland.

Marshes are essentially flooded grasslands with perhaps a few trees per acre.  They contain standing water anywhere from an inch to several feet.  So, find out the depth before you go trudging out there.

Swamps are the woodier cousins of marshes as they are flooded woodlands with many more trees per acre.  Up until the last ten years I didn’t know the difference between swamps and marshes and used the terms interchangeably.  You can no longer use ignorance as your excuse.

Bogs are closed systems where rainfall is the only “new” water that enters.  Bogs are highly acidic (unlike fens, which are alkaline).  Sometimes they have open water and others are covered with saturated peaty soil topped with a lovely layer of sphagnum moss.  If you want to find carnivorous plants, bogs are the place to be.

Don't try this without a net

Don’t try this without a net

Vernal ponds, most likely there’s one in your neighborhood if you have some green space are temporary and almost always dry by high summer.  If you look carefully you might find fairy shrimp flitting around in the water or salamanders lurking nearby.

Grand Ledge, MI

Vernal pond, Grand Ledge, MI

The Great Lake states also have coastal wetlands, too.

Given the copious, emergent vegetation, wetlands can be difficult to explore at times.  But if you can find a clearing you should be able to observe fish, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and terrestrial and aquatic insects.  It’s worth the effort.  Next to Atlantic tidal pools, Great Lakes wetlands are my favorite ecosystems.

Obviously, get outside, explore your wetlands.  They might not be there come July.

Sweet, sweet sap

This has been the interminable winter here in the Great Lakes.  As of a snowfall yesterday, we are only three inches away from tying the all-time snowiest winter for Detroit since 1880-81.

We’ve had a few days of forty degrees and two that were just above fifty, but mostly it’s been cold and snowy.  We’re getting sunnier days now and quite often it feels like we’re on that hinge point between winter and spring, which is only just over a week away.

This time of year though is special.  As the days warm, yet the nights stay cold, the sap begins to flow in trees.  That means the first farm crop that can be harvested in Michigan is almost ready.

What am I talking about?  Arugula?  No, that would have been planted in late summer or early fall and probably the season was over in January (if you had them covered.  Asparagus?  Nope, too early.  So what then?

I could only be talking about maple syrup.  That sweet, gooey goodness that comes from a tree.

"The Collection Bucket"

“The Collection Bucket”


My experience with maple syrup didn’t start until much later in life (my twenties, if I recall correctly).  I was a devotee of Mrs. Butterworth’s and no tree sap was going to change my mind.

I don’t know when I made the switch exactly, but I don’t want to go back to that old corn lady.  Sure, maple syrup costs more, but hey, it’s almost guaranteed to be organic and sustainable and supports local economies.

In fact, per tablespoon of maple syrup you’ll ingest 20 mg calcium, 2 mg phosphorous, 2 mg iron, 2 mg sodium (yes, they even put salt on trees!) and 35 mg of potassium.  What’s your corny syrup have?

Maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern US and eastern Canada.  How far west the range extends, I’m not sure, but probably not west of Minnesota, if that.

The Michigan Maple Syrup Association claims it is the oldest agricultural enterprise in the US, but I’m not clear on what that means?  Older than corn and squash?  The oldest enterprise that involved the exchange of money?  The website doesn’t clarify that.  Obviously, though, the Indians were the first to discover the sweetness hidden beneath the bark.

Doing it on her own

Speaking of Michigan, according to 2004 figures, Michigan is 5th in the nation for syrup production with 90,000 gallons harvested per year.  It appears to be one of those rare products where demand exceeds supply, possibly explaining the relatively high cost–and perhaps because the US Farm Bill does not include subsidies for maple trees.

The sap is collected from the xylem in sugar, red, and black maple trees, although other species of maple can be tapped, but the sugar content is lower resulting in less sweetness, less syrup,  or more boiling time.  In Korea, people drink the sap from Acer mono, another maple species, but don’t produce syrup.  And in Alaska and Siberia, birch trees are tapped, but again sugar content is much lower.

The flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, and the weather during the tapping season.  Pressure develops in the tree when the temps are above freezing and this pushes the sap out of a wound or a tap.

Maples are tapped once they reach about 10 inches in diameter with one tap.  The largest trees have a maximum of three taps.  On average, given the tree, weather, length of sap season, and method, one can harvest about 10-20 gallons per tap.

Pouring sap

Once it’s bottled, maple syrup is good for over a year.

In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of a winter treat where hot maple syrup is poured over snow to create a proto-snow cone.  My father-in-law can attest to this.

If you’re at all interested in making your own maple syrup, you don’t have to own 40 acres of sugar bush, you could, with your neighbors’ consent, tap the trees right around you.

The challenge this month isn’t to tap a maple tree, but it is two-fold: see if you can identify some of the still naked maples in your neighborhood (sugar maples have “peanut-butter valleys” between ridges of bark) and buy some locally/regionally produced maple syrup.

You’re welcome!

55 gallons of sap

55 gallons of sap

Information was gleaned from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association and Cornell.edu.

Froggy went-a-courtin’

So, what did you hear in May? Did you spot any amphibians? I found a salamander, nowhere near my back yard, but still…outside of the Great Smoky Mountains and one specimen in Pennsylvania, I’ve only seen three salamanders in Michigan in my entire life. I also spotted a bullfrog on that day–didn’t hear him, though.
Early May was quite dry in SE Michigan, so the toads stopped, but then after some rainy days last week, the boys picked up their trilling tones again to catch the ears of some girls. At my second backyard (about 40 miles away from my primary backyard) I heard the green frogs call along with a few chorus frogs still hanging around. The gray tree frog was starting his season as well, two weeks back. As the spring winds down, some species breeding ends while others pick up. Keep your ears open, triangulate, and then try to spot the little hoppers before the water evaporates and fall is here again.IMG_0485

Frog Holler

Bufo americanus or American toad

Bufo americanus or American toad

Returning and permanent resident birds were featured last month, now for May we move closer to the ground and even into the water. Birds and insects appear with the unveiling of spring, but so do amphibians. You can’t hear salamanders, but you can enjoy the singing of frogs and toads.
They, like birds, are trying to attract the attention of amorous females, and one way to do that is to call–loudly and incessantly. Here in SE Michigan usually the first two species to call are the wood frogs and chorus frogs. They can start as early as March if it warms enough. The toad, lowly as it is (pictured above) begins calling in April. From there we hear the green frog, perhaps the leopard frog, the gray tree frog, and in some special locations, the bullfrog.
Amphibians are an indicator species, so if you have water (or wet spots) in your neighborhood, and you don’t hear some kind amphibian yawp, you might have polluted water or the creatures were extirpated for some reason.
The natural sounds of nature can at times annoy, but really, the trill of a toad beats some idiot neighbor’s booming bass, doesn’t it? The plucked banjo string call of the green frog is more soothing than the summer ritual of loud fireworks exploding in a nearby yard, is it not?

As far as resources go, I’ve found this book to be very helpful. Of course, if you don’t live in Michigan it won’t do you much good, but I’m sure one of your universities has a similar publication. The internet is an excellent resource for hearing what these critters sound like, until you can identify them on your own–I still get wood frogs and chorus frogs mixed up. At times when I hear the tree frog grunt and chirp, I think I’m hearing a bird. Perhaps you’ll be a better student than me. Get outdoors and listen.