Trail Threat to Calhoun County’s Harvey Ott Preserve is Back

It appears that the more-or-less satisfactory resolution (as of about this time last year) to the proposed wide trail through the Ott Preserve has fallen through.  The issue is again before the Calhoun County Board of  Commissioners.
Last year, the Board listened carefully to all sides and rejected the poorly conceived plan brought to it by the Calhoun County Trailways Alliance. In effect, the Board affirmed a compromise in which a route minimizing mileage and potential damage was to be sought.
 
I would have wished as part of the action at that time that a definite route had been chosen and agreed on or, if not, that the principles to be used in selecting a route be settled–no penetration near biologically sensitive areas, minimal alteration of ground contours, etc. None of this was done, but I–and I think most people–were left believing that the route would pretty much follow the Consumers Energy right-of way, an already disturbed section along the west side of the Preserve.
 
It now appears that choosing the route was left to the Trailways Alliance Board.  Furthermore, negotiations seem to have been left to the Alliance, so that when the Alliance decided that the trail ought to cut across some private property, it was the Alliance negotiating easements with the owners.
  
It does not seem surprising that the negotiations failed.
  
Neither is it surprising that the Trailways Alliance is now back, wanting a long route through relatively undisturbed areas of Ott.
Evidently some new alternative has been suggested. Possibly it has merits.  But I doubt that it should be accepted in the next week or month.  The Board’s stewardship of the Ott Preserve should include a real effort to let the public know exactly what is planned as to route, methods (construction, stewardship}, effects on vegetation and animals, hydrology, topography, and funding for all likely costs including ongoing remediation of damage produced by the trail traffic.
  
Essential to a final decision is a thorough ecological survey of the Preserve.  That such a survey should be done has been clear since such a trail project was proposed. Up-to-date information is needed on what features most need protection and where they are.  Baseline data is needed, so that the damage such a trail will do can be unambiguously detected.
Who would suppose that a large-scale project such as this could be started without such a survey?  The survey should have been done a few years ago.  It could have been done during the past year. Perhaps the Trail Alliance would prefer that no such survey ever be done.
This renewed attempt to run a trail through Ott has come up quickly.  It should not be acted on quickly.  People need well-advertised opportunities to question proponents–and opponents.  People need to be able to walk any proposed route and judge for themselves.  They need to be able to answer for themselves–Is this the route we want?  Do we want a 14-foot-wide swath cut through the Ott Preserve at all?
The foregoing is a slightly modified version of a letter I emailed to all of the Calhoun County Commissioners having email addresses this morning.  The Commission is scheduled to take up and perhaps vote on the new proposed route tomorrow night ( 3 May 2012) at their regular meeting. Information about the Preserve features, history including the 2011 attack and another still earlier incident are given here and in several other posts on my website around the same time.
Following is a list of the current county commissioners, most of whom were also on the board  in 2011:

Kathy Sue Dunn (Board appointed replacement for former Commissioner Behnke)

458 Country Club Drive Battle Creek, MI 49015 (269) 968-9758

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1778

 

Terris Todd

135 Irving Park Drive Battle Creek, MI 49017 (269) 660-8717

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1662

todd4calhoun@yahoo.com

 

Jim Haadsma

146 South Lincoln Blvd.

Battle Creek, MI 49015

(269) 964-3472

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1359

jhaadsma@mccroskeylaw.com

 

Steve Frisbie

148 Pheasantwood Trail Battle Creek, MI 49017 (269) 964-1693

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1322

sjfriz@gmail.com

 

Julie Camp Seifke

8934 5 Mile Road East Leroy, MI 49051 (269) 967-0759

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1221

juliecamp5@gmail.com

 

Art Kale

PO Box 672 Albion, MI 49224 (517) 629-4774

Email form: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/directory/contact/?StaffId=1431

arthurkale@gmail.com

 

Blaine VanSickle

16828 21 Mile Road Marshall, MI 49068 (269) 781-4400

No email

 


Posted in Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities | Comments closed

Field Trip To Beech-Sugar Maple Forest 7 April 2012, In A High CO2 World

Big trees in Mildred Harris Sanctuary. Photo 6 March 2011 by Richard Brewer

I’m leading a field trip to a beech-sugar maple forest this spring.  We’ll look at the spring flowers and as we stroll around also talk about what mesophytic forests are like, why they are where they are, what the interactions among the organisms are, and other such natural history and ecology topics.

The specific site where we’ll gather is the Mildred Harris Sanctuary north of Kalamazoo.  It’s owned by the Michigan Audubon Society and has been stewarded for many years by the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo.

The trip is sponsored by the Southwest Chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club as part of its 2012 project concentrating on natural features and conservation in Oshstemo Township (known to some as the Occupy Oshtemo movement.

I’ve led a trip along these lines several springs in past years, to one or another of the remaining examples of mesophytic forest in southwest Michigan.  But there’s a difference this year.

Most such trips for spring ephemerals led by me or others have been held in mid or late April or even early May.  This year the president, Tyler Bassett, of the Southwest Chapter of the  Botanical Club and I had agreed on Saturday April 21 as the date. Then the second week of March arrived.  The beginning of March had temperatures fairly close to the historical averages–30s as highs and 20s as lows.  March 6 started a run in which day after day had highs at least in the 60s and often the 70s.  March 19 to 22, had a run of highs in the 80s. The last freezing temperatures came far back in February.

Looking at what was happening to the flora, Tyler and I decided to move the date of spring wild flower trip up by two weeks, to Saturday March 7.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but seventeen days with temperatures between 60 and 85 in the middle of March may make it necessary for Michigan nature organizations to revise their field trip calendars.

Here’s an idea, a sampling, of what’s been happening this spring:  As mentioned in my last post, I heard wood frogs in Oshtemo Township 12 March and by the next night, they were joined by a few spring peepers.

By the night of 15 March, both these species as well as chorus frogs were in full voice. On the 15th, the high temperature was 79 and the low 55, compared with historical averages of 45 and 27 degrees.

As to the plants, on a visit 14 March to Newton Woods at Russ Forest, two friends and I found spring beauty up, a broad-leaved sedge with flowering stalks, and harbinger of spring close to full bloom.

Spice bush in flower. Photograph 18 March 2012 Oshtemo Township by Richard Brewer

In Oshtemo Township, spice bush was in full bloom by 18 March, a golden haze over the edges of the kettles where the frogs had gathered.  Bloodroot was in bloom 19 March.

On 22 March, I visited a rich beech-maple forest in Pavilion Township.  All of the following (in the order I came across them) were in bloom:

Spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, Yellow violet, harbinger of spring (nearly done), blue violet, Carex plantaginifolia (nearly done), toothwort, purple spring cress, wood anemone, and skunk cabbage.

Several other species were up and some had obvious flower buds.

So we’ll gather this year April 7 at the Harris Sanctuary which is in the southwest corner of F Avenue and 8th Street.  It’s about 3 miles north of the trail-head of the Kal-Haven Trail (which is on 9th Street).  F Avenue is a gravel road–a Natural Beauty road, in fact.  Attendees should park on the north side of the road.  Be there by 10 AM.

Harris is on the Kalamazoo moraine, so there will some mild hill climbing. We’ll finish about noon.  Bring a sandwich and have lunch sitting on a log if you wish.

The technically minded may notice that the Harris Sanctuary is not in Oshtemo Township.  But it’s pretty close.

Three-quarters of a mile north.

 

Posted in Conservation, Land Trusts (& other private land conservation), Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities | Comments closed

Notes On A High CO2 Spring, March 2012

North Pond. Photo 12 March 2012 Oshtemo Township by Richard Brewer

With temperatures in the 50s and 60s the last few days–and predicted as mid-70s today–spring is advancing fast.  Wood frogs were calling in the larger pond Monday, March 12.  By yesterday, they were in full chorus in both ponds and by last night, a few spring peepers had joined in.

Among the bird arrivals I’ve noticed (since we’ve been back), Red-winged Blackbirds were numerous Monday morning, and I saw two American Robins along our road, where none had been all winter.

Black-capped Chickadees were giving their spring, “fee-bee” song Tuesday morning.

But there has been little in the way of wild flower action, at least in the oak woods.  Honey bees were visiting the non-native winter aconite, which is in full bloom.

Posted in Birds, Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities | Comments closed

Turkey Vultures: A Panama Addendum

Katy and I just returned from Panama.  I’ll write more about the trip later.  This note is a short Panama addendum to the Turkey Vulture post of a few weeks ago.

In reading about Panama before we went down, I came across some of Frank M. Chapman’s observations on Turkey Vultures in his 1938 book Life in an Air Castle.  The observations were made at Barro Colorado Island in the Canal Zone where Chapman, Curator of Birds at the American Museum, spent a good many dry seasons beginning in 1925. He was one of the ornithologists who performed some field experiments that established that Turkey Vultures could readily find carrion without reliance on vision.  One of his trials was “The Empty-House Test.” In it, he and E. Thomas Gilliard placed the body of a coati on a shelf hidden from the outside in a vacant house. This was done the afternoon of 24 December 1935.  No Turkey Vultures had been seen in the vicinity for at least a month.

Chapman wrote that he did not expect the presence of the dead coati would be detected by the vultures within a day, “while my associate in this experiment freely expressed his belief that they would never discover it. With unconcealed surprise, therefore, he announced at 9:45 on Christmas morning that a buzzard had just flown from a tree growing next to the house containing the coati.”

Within the next three hours, five more Turkey Vultures and one Black Vulture (presumably attracted by the sight of the Turkey Vultures descending) made appearances.

A similar “Box on the Hill Test” plus many trials where carcasses securely wrapped in three layers of gunny sacking–burlap–were laid on the ground under forest cover gave similar results.  The wrapped carcasses were monitored with flash cameras triggered by a wire attached to the bait.  The resulting photos showed that the hidden carrion was quickly found, and always by Turkey Vultures.

The unanimity of these trials pretty much eliminates the idea that the Turkey Vultures must see the dead animal to find their food. The trials do not by themselves show that the sense of smell is involved, and in fact, two naturalists within a couple of years of one another suggested that vultures might be finding dead animals by noticing carrion-feeding insects (or even small mammals) attracted to corpses.

William B. Taber, Jr. was the first, writing in the Wilson Bulletin for 1928.  He pointed out that Turkey Vultures can be attracted to carrion by seeing a cluster of crows on the ground (around a dead animal) and suggested that they might very well be similarly attracted to a bunch of brightly colored carrion beetles.

While collecting insects in tropical America, P. J. Darlington, Jr., twice had bait put out to attract carrion-feeding beetles stolen by Turkey Vultures.  The first case was dead fish hidden under fairly large stones, the second dead iguanas put out in scrubby woods.  In an article in The Auk for 1930 Darlington (later on a well-known biogeographer at Harvard) admitted that the birds could have smelled the dead animals, but thought that the possibility that the birds had been attracted by seeing a congregation of insects or hearing their buzzing ought to be considered.  He concluded that Turkey and Black Vultures “are highly organized animals which presumably react to a complex environment in a very complex manner, and which must be experimented with accordingly.”

Chapman saw nothing in his trials to make him think that the sight or sound of insects was attracting the vultures but made a similar point, one that he had made in connection with his earlier studies: The Turkey Vulture “is not a mere stupid gorger of carrion but a bird dependent for its existence on its power of flight and discriminating use of its senses of sight and smell.”

Maybe even hearing. Perhaps it’s time for someone to do a well-designed test of whether the buzzing of blowflies or the clicking or squeaking sounds made by a gathering of carrion-eating beetles would pull vultures down from the sky.

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Founders Rule

Late first snow, Oshtemo Township. Photo 2 January 2012 by Richard Brewer

A thread that began on the LANDTRUST-L listserv early in December 2011 had an outlier, a late post, a couple of days ago.  I read it over this afternoon as the first good-sized snow of the winter was falling–9 inches but slowing down.

The thread had to do with term limits for land trust board members and the familiar points were covered–well covered as is generally the case for nuts-and-bolts land trust issues on this listserv.  The virtues of bringing in new blood as against losing capable veterans were compared. The difficuly of finding good new contributing members was mentioned as well as the need for a committee to profile desirable skills and locate candidates. Ways of retaining involvement of former board members that had been term-limited off were suggested.

Different land trusts handled things differently, but if there was a consensus, it was that term limits, despite bringing some problems that had to be dealt with, were a good thing.

It would be hard to disagree with such a moderate position. Term limits can have several good effects and only a few bad ones. And  a land trust that is a going concern in a market of reasonable size can almost always recruit competent new board members if the nominating committee is doing its job.

Something that has occurred to me after watching a lot of boards from chamber music to bird clubs is that only one class of board member is irreplaceable.  The irreplaceable class is the founders. I make this suggestion not in a spirit of contention but as a serious observation.

There are founders and founders.  Some people are founders because they’re a friend of one of the real founders or they’re an accountant or have a good permanent mailing address or have a friend at the local foundation.  All of these are good traits for board members. But the founders to me are the ones with the zeal.  They’re the ones with the vision of the organization’s role, the knowledge of the enterprise, the sense of rightness of the task, and the persistence to fill out the forms, rent the hall, and actually produce a new organization.

Some new board members develop some of these attributes. Some don’t, though they may do a lot of governance or a lot of cheer leading.

I would make an exception to a term limits rule to make it possible for any founder to serve on the board as long as and whenever he or she chose to. The point is to keep the founder traits and also to keep the the institutional history readily accessible.

Not everybody will agree.  In fact, one of the main motivations for term limits–soft-pedaled in the moderate discussions of the listserv–is to get rid of the old-timers with their baggage of stoutly held outmoded ideas of how things ought to be done.

Non-profit-board experts have identified two evolutionary trends.  Boards start out as a bunch of activists who know the subject. In the course of time they are replaced by policy-setter types with influence in the community.  And pari passu the work of the organization shifts from volunteers to paid staff.

These two trends are definite and immutable, as certain as the development of a sunburn from too much time at the beach.  In one article on non-profit board development I saw, the condition of having founders remaining past their pull-by date was referred to as Founders’ Syndrome, indicating the seriousness of the affliction.

My view is that, despite occasional bull-headness, cantankerousness, and failure to go with the flow, founders may bring features hard to find elsewhere.

Not an invitation for argument, just a rumination from a snowy afternoon.

Happy New Year to founders and non-founders alike.

[Persons interested in land trust topics can partake of the listserv mentioned by emailing listserv@indiana.edu with the message subscribe landtrust-L]

 

Posted in Conservation, Land Trusts (& other private land conservation) | Comments closed

L. A. Kenoyer on Saving Newton Woods

Leslie A. Kenoyer in the greenhouse at West Hall, WMU East campus. Photo courtesy Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection

The essay that follows is a radio address by Leslie Alva Kenoyer, who served from 1922 to 1953 as Professor and Chairman of the Biology Department at Western Michigan University –at that time Western State Teachers College .  The piece is dated April 16, 1935.  It was written for Western’s Radio Hour, which was evidently a continuing feature on station WKZO.

NEWTON WOODS 

Leslie Kenoyer 

“Woodman, spare that tree, Touch not a single bough.”

 The sentiment that inspired this poem has not been firmly enough established in the minds of southern Michigan people to save from destruction any more than the most scattered remnants of our once beautiful and glorious forest lands. Some fifty thousand years ago the great continental glacier receded from what is now Michigan leaving a raw and barren glacial clay, streaked here and there with sand and gravel. Such soil, in the cool climate then found here, could support only a meager arctic vegetation, consisting of such low, spreading plants as we find today in our cold bogs. The rain and sun gradually brought about favorable chemical changes in the soil and the plants gradually decayed to form humus, hence, in the course of a few centuries, the scant arctic vegetation was replaced by larger shrubs. Centuries later trees occupied the ground, starting with the poplars and developing from stage to stage to dense shady forests of beech and sugar maple. such as covered much of southern Michigan 110 years ago when the government divided our land into townships and sections.

It was inevitable that the trees should succumb to the lumberman’s axe, when the land was cleared for farm homesteads, but it is particularly unfortunate that their removal should have been so complete. Indeed we have here and there a small woodlot to serve as a rather meager sample of the forests that were. but larger tracts are now exceedingly scarce. One of the finest and most extensive remaining areas is Newton Woods in Cass County, adjoining the road from Decatur to Cassopolis, and not far from the village of Volinia. Here are several hundred acres of practically virgin timber, including large blocks of both the beech-maple and oak-hickory types of timber. The trees of this forest were large long before southern Michigan was surveyed and opened to the settler. Among them is an elm which now lifts its head to the majestic height of 150 feet and has a circumference. three feet above ground of 24 feet [91-92 inches in diameter]. Some believe it to be the largest tree now standing in Michigan. There is also a magnificent group of giant tulip or whitewood, the largest of which is 145 feet high, 90 feet to the first branch and 30 feet in circumference [114-115 inches in diameter]. It takes three to five centuries to grow such trees as these.

Ten years ago we could see from our college campus, at a distance of eight or nine miles, a stately elm, towering far above the other trees. Suddenly this tree ceased to be seen, and we learned that it had been sold for $100 for the manufacture of barrel staves. On visiting the stump and counting the rings of growth, I found that the tree was considerably over 400 years old. It was a sapling when Columbus crossed the Atlantic in his puny sailing vessels. Probably the barrels have worn out and the $100 has been long since spent and forgotten, but it will take 400 years to grow another such tree.

When a forest is cut, it is not only the trees that go. The shrubs and the herbs, the orchids and other rare plants, the mosses and lichens that form the turf, will not live when deprived of the shade of the trees. The disappearance of this ground cover permits the erosion of the soil, which represents the accumulation of many thousands of years. The insects, the birds, and the beasts are dislodged from their accustomed haunts, many of them to perish. Hence the restoration of a denuded area cannot be accomplished by the mere planting of trees, nor does a planted forest ever prove a satisfactory substitute for a destroyed native forest.  The old conditions will not and cannot be restored, once the forest is gone.  How, then, will the next generation know anything of the beauties and glories of the forest with its wonderful variety of plant and animal forms  This is a question which our generation must answer.

A part of the Newton Woods is now in the hands of a lumber company and some cutting has already been done, but there is a chance that it may yet be rescued if the public will take sufficient interest in its preservation. The lumber firm is kindly witholding operations in view of an aggressive campaign that is now being sponsored by the Michigan Academy [of Science, Arts, and Letters], the Michigan Forestry Association, and other organizations and individuals who feel that the value to the people of such reserves for the continuation of our wild life is one that cannot be measured in mere dollars. The present leader of this movement is Shirley W. Allen, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Professor Allen would like to hear from all who are interested in finding some means to save the tract.  It is well to bear in mind that our present state parks are mostly in northern Michigan remote from centers of population. Here is a real wilderness with immense trees, a small stream, a profusion of wild flowers, birds, and other natural beauties easy of access to a million people.  We cannot blame property owners for wishing to realize from their investments, but we deplore the fact that the people are not awake to the desirability of keeping the few remaining bits of out landscape as nature gave them to us, free from the artificial modifications imposed  by farm and city development.  With an awakened public, our officials and our public-spirited citizens of means would put forth the necessary efforts to save from the general destruction these remnants of wild nature for the instruction and enjoyment of generations yet to come.

Kenoyer’s comments on post-glacial vegetation change hold up well enough as a broad pattern.  However, the quoted estimate of 50,000 years ago since the last ice sheet melted from southern Michigan is too high. Something on the order of 15,000 years would be closer to the interval based on current evidence.

I like Kenoyer’s plea for protecting natural areas “for the enjoyment and instruction” of later generations.  If I were to revise it I might write “enjoyment, instruction, and health of our own and later generations.” But Kenoyer’s plea for land conservation was accurate and eloquent exactly as he wrote it and, in 1935 on a radio broadcast, far ahead of its time.

The script of this and a few other of Kenoyer’s radio addresses, preserved by Biology Prof. Frank Hindshave been deposited in the WMU Archives and Regional History Collection

Kenoyer received his Ph.D. in 1916, evidently done in some sort of joint arrangement between the University of Chicago and Iowa State University.  He is credited with receiving the first Ph.D. granted by  what was then The Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.  Kenoyer’s thesis research dealt with environmental influences on nectar secretion.  This and his research interests as shown in later life seem clearly in line with the work being done at Chicago by Henry Chandler Cowles and the other faculty and graduate students.

Kenoyer was born in 1883 in Dover, a small community in north-central Illinois. After completing his Ph.D., he taught botany in India for six years, then spent a year at Michigan State before coming to Kalamazoo.  He became head of the Biology Department soon after arriving, when LeRoy H. Harvey died.

Newton Woods was saved by a donation of  land (580 acres) and an endowment by Fred Russ in 1939 .  The story is complicated (and deserves a thorough treatment by someone), but there is a rough correspondence between the “Newton Woods” of the 1930s and Fred Russ Forest managed by Michigan State University.  MSU applies the name “Newton Woods” to 40 acres of old-growth hardwood, the only part of the forest that is protected from timber cutting.  E. Lucy Braun in her monumental study Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America (1950. Blakiston, Philadelphia) sampled two distinct areas at Russ Forest, probably in the early 1940s (pp 318-320).  One was beech-sugar maple with American elm, black walnut, tulip tree, and several other species well represented. The other was dominated by white oak with sugar maple second and red oak and black walnut tied for third.  Evidently, the oak-maple stand is what MSU terms “Newton Woods.”  

Whether Kenoyer and some of the other individuals and groups who worked to preserve Newton Woods 75 years ago would  be wholly be satisfied with the outcome is not certain.

 

Posted in Conservation, Land Trusts (& other private land conservation), Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities, Quotations | Comments closed

More about Ozone: Lisa was smiling till she saw Fred

Photo by Richard Brewer

In the preceding post, the question of why President Obama rebuffed the stronger ozone standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency was left unresolved.  Now we have the answer.

The Kalamazoo Gazette for 2 November 2011 reprinted an article from the Washington Post by Ned Martel. The Gazette reprint was titled Upton Changing for good of GOP? Longtime moderate shedding conciliatory ways at key time for his party.

The topic was the supposed slide to the right by Fred Upton.  Upton, an heir to the Whirlpool fortune, has served as the U. S. Representative from southwestern Michigan since 1987.  He’s had something of a reputation as a moderate since his first campaign in 1986.  In fact, Howard Wolpe, a Democratic icon from Kalamazoo, recounts how he advised Upton in that campaign, the 1986 Republican primary in which Upton beat the conservative incumbent, Mark Siljander.

Maybe Fred has changed his stripes, as Wolpe and others have suggested.  But I’m doubtful; the bulk of Upton’s voting record has always been that of a conservative Republican. Occasional deviations from the Republican party line may well have been sanctioned by the Republican leadership on a few bills where it was clear his vote would make no difference–that is, on issues where the Republicans were already certain to win by a large margin or lose by a large margin.

An alternative interpretation of Fred’s move is that in recent years, with the various changes in Congressional districts and boundaries, Michigan’s 6th Congressional district has so many Republicans he no longer needs votes from the blue sections and can stop pretending.

Whether it’s a real change or just the end of dissimulation means little–except possibly to some of the moderates or liberals who voted for Fred in earlier elections.

This is a long preamble to the crux–the answer to our question.  According to the Martel article, Upton “pushed the president to jettison some tough ozone-reduction plans.”  We learn further that “at a September joint session of Congress, EPA Adminstrator Lisa Jackson caught sight of Upton. ‘She was smiling till she saw me,’ Upton recalled with relish.”

And there we have it.  Fred pushed, Obama jettisoned, and Lisa smiled no more.

Posted in Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo) | Comments closed

Ozone, Obama, and the Deregulation Doo Dah Parade

[This post appeared in briefer form as a Letter to the Editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette 12 September 2011.]

Automobiles are a less serious contributor to ozone production since catalytic converters have been required. Photo in downtown Milwaukee, WI by Richard Brewer

President Obama made two serious mistakes early this fall. First, he told the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw new, stronger, standards for ozone levels in the lower atmosphere that were intended to replace the standards held over from the Bush administration. Ozone (O3) is an atmospheric pollutant dangerous to human health because it’s highly reactive in lung tissues. It’s involved in various respiratory diseases but evidently also in other sorts of human pathology; for example, it’s believed to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. But ozone in the lower atmosphere also has many bad effects besides just our own health and life span.  It damages plants, lowering photosynthesis and growth and is implicated in die-offs of forest trees.

Ozone is produced in the lower atmosphere by reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. The nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds come mostly from power plants, various sorts of factories, automobiles, gasoline vapor, and chemical solvents.

There are interactions between ozone production and temperature and ozone effects and temperature, such that we get more ozone produced and stronger effects when temperatures are high. These are one of many kinds of interactions that may make global warming an even greater calamity than most of the early predictions claimed.

President Obama’s second mistake was his reason for turning down the new, science-based ozone recommendations. He said he wanted to reduce regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty. But tough regulations strictly enforced are what can make capitalism work. The last few years have shown us repeatedly how things go astray when politicians manage to weaken and thwart regulations.  Weakened regulations together with the unwillingness of federal agencies to enforce existing regulations were the main causes of the financial fiasco of 2007-2009 and the recession that came with it.

Michigan has been on the deregulation bandwagon right along.  In the DooDah parade of deregulation, it may even have been ahead of the bandwagon.  We had a governor a few years ago whose slogan was “Less enforcement, more compliance.”  Such a proposition if it were sincere would be fatuous, but considering everything, just calling it preposterous or ludicrous will probably have to serve.

President Obama seems to have accepted the argument of the extreme political right that there is a conflict between “the environment” and “the economy.”  For most Americans, the right wing lost on that issue 30 or 40 years ago. Some corporations tell us if the nation doesn’t give them lax environmental rules they’ll take their jobs overseas.  Since such corporations show little national loyalty, some have.

But the balance sheet we need to look at is the overall gain to our nation in terms of clean air and water, healthy citizens, healthy communities, and healthy ecosystems  compared with the cost of meeting any given environmental standard. Time after time we’ve seen that the costs of meeting new standards turns out lower than the company’s forecast, that new jobs are created connected with the improved technology needed, and that the overall national cost/benefit ratio is heavily in favor of the tougher standards.

Anyone who’s been paying attention anytime these past 40 years knows that.  Why doesn’t the President?

President Obama has another environmental decision coming up soon.  This is to accept or reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry a form of crude oil processed from Canadian tar sands from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.  I hope to write more about this a little later.

Posted in Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities | Comments closed

How the Turkey Vulture Found the Raccoon

Coming up the driveway in the car a little before noon today (8 October 2011), I was surprised to see a very  large bird flap out of the

Turkey Vulture in flight. Photo Kalamazoo MI by Tim Tesar. Used by permission.

trees, followed by a Blue Jay.  I had just seen crows along the road, so it was evident that this bird was much larger than a crow and larger than any buteo.  It was, in fact, a Turkey Vulture, the first I had seen actually within the woods in the 15-plus years since I arrived.

What, I wondered, was it doing here?  Then the answer struck me.

The folk wisdom in southern Illinois, where I grew up, was that vultures, or buzzards, find carrion by the smell of rotting meat.  But birds in general have a poor sense of smell, and the olfactory lobe of the brain, which is associated with smell, is large in mammals like us, but small in most birds.  Then too, John James Audubon, an excellent naturalist as well as painter of birds, did a few trials in the early part of the 19th century, trying to assess how vultures found food.  His observations of vultures failing to find hidden carrion led him to the conclusion that dead carcasses were located by sight. “The power of smelling in these birds had been greatly exaggerated,” he wrote.

Other observations didn’t always agree with Audubon’s conclusion. By 1964, an article by Kenneth E. Stager of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum summarized his and other studies that pretty well established the main features of how vultures find their meals.  In broad outline, Aububon wasn’t wrong, but he had worked mainly with Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), which do locate food visually, either by spotting it themselves or watching Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura).  Turkey Vultures, it turns out, have a well-developed sense of smell which they can use to find even small animals that are not visible from the sky. They also have large olfactory lobes.  Of course, they are not above gliding down to a dead animal they see lying out in plain sight.

There are some other details that may or may not have been decided in the last few years, such as whether either or both vultures can use the sight (or the sound) of carrion-feeding insects going to a dead animal as a clue to the corpse’s presence.

Earlier this morning before 9 AM, when I was walking down the driveway to get the newspapers, I had caught a strong smell of carrion. I left the driveway and only a few steps into the woods found a dead raccoon. I didn’t examine it carefully and have no idea how it met its death.  When I had walked past the same spot several times yesterday, I had not smelled a dead raccoon. It was not there, or it was too fresh.

Finding a Turkey Vulture near a dead raccoon that it could not have seen from the sky doesn’t qualify as an important piece of evidence on the topic, Nevertheless, I was pleased that an observation of my own, right here in Oshtemo Township, is so nicely congruent with modern thinking on how the Turkey Vulture finds its food.

When I pulled up at the front door, I looked back and the Turkey Vulture had already returned to the trees above the dead raccoon. I ducked into the house, not wanting to interrupt the bird’s meal any longer.

Dead raccoon. Photo 8 October 2011 Oshtemo Township by Richard Brewer

A few hours later, I checked the carcass.  The skull, vertebral column, and limbs had been stripped clean, and the skin was clean and much of it was inside out.

Posted in Birds, Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Southern Illinois Ecology | Comments closed

Find the three birds orchid in Michigan beech-maple forest, please

Today is a good time to take a walk in the forest, but then any time is.  It’s a really good time for a walk in the beech-maple forest, because a very rare orchid blooms this time of year.

In beech-maple forest, the canopy is continuous and dense except where a tree has recently been lost. Photo 29 August 2011 Pavilion Township by Richard Brewer

The orchid is three birds orchid (Triphora trianthophora).  It’s known from Kalamazoo County and in fact from much of the eastern U.S., but in most places it has become rare. It is now considered threatened, endangered, or extirpated in most states. The last record in Michigan was evidently in 1981, from Berrien County.

It’s possible that three birds is gone from Kalamazoo County and Michigan. Perhaps the observations in the 20th century just caught the tail of a population dwindling toward extinction–in this region; three birds seems a little more numerous in the South.  However, there are some reasons why not many people are out looking in the beech-maple forests when it’s visible, and also some reasons why, even if you’re there, three birds isn’t necessarily easy to spot.

First, almost nothing else is in flower in the mesophytic forests at this time of year, so there’s not much to look at.  The many species of spring ephemerals that covered the ground in April and May are gone.  A few species that flower in summer are now in fruit, and it’s pleasant to be able to see the doll’s-eyes and blue cohosh.  But, in general, the beech-maple forests of late summer are dark, and the ground is obscured in many places with seedlings and saplings,

Doll's-eyes (Actaea pachypoda) in fruit in beech-maple forest. Photo Oshtemo Township 17 August 2009 by Richard Brewer

mostly sugar maple, or with thick foliage of ferns, wood nettle (Laportea), wild ginger, and a few other herbs.

Three birds is a short plant, 6 inches or thereabouts, so I imagine in the shade and under the foliage, it’s not easy to see. Nevertheless, considering how important rediscovering the species would be, if you can get to a beech-maple forest in the next few days, you ought to give it a try.

There is much yet to learn about the habitat and life history of three birds.  Within its mesophytic forest home, it’s said to favor sites where there’s a build-up of leaf litter and humus.  Probably this means small depressions.  Leaves accumulate other places, such as between two large fallen trunks, but I’m not sure if that microhabitat would be long-lived enough to allow time for the orchid to invade.  But maybe it would. From observations of the Michigan botanist Fred Case in his Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1987), I suspect that most dispersal is through underground tuberoids that are dug up, carried off, and stored in the duff and litter by red squirrels, or perhaps chipmunks.

Late in the summer, fleshy stems sprout rapidly from the underground tuberoids.  Each plant bears only a few leaves which are oval, alternate, and clasp the stem.  Usually there will be a few stems in a clump. Not long after the plants appear, one or occasionally more of the buds open.  Flowering is possibly triggered by a couple of chilly nights in a row.  It is reported that most of the plants in a given area produce their first blooms at the same time.  After a day or so, the first set of blossoms shrivel, and in a few days, a second round of flowering may occur, and perhaps a third.

The flowers (often three per plant) are recognizably orchids but small, perhaps about an inch wide and an inch tall and are mostly whitish or pinkish with a greenish bearded stripe on the lip.  The fruits last for a couple of weeks before slits develop that allow the release of the spore-like seedsin the following days.  Although the plants are not at their showiest when they’re in fruit, this is the probably the longest period of their above-ground life.  You can see how the plant looks with fruit at this Connecticut Botanical Society site with photos by Eleanor Saulys.   The same site shows some plants in flower. Many more photos of flowering plants by Jim Fowler are shown at the North Carolina site  linked to earlier.

So, have a look at the photos and head for the nearest beech-maple forest.  If you find three birds orchids, please tell us about it in the comments section.  But don’t mention exactly where you found them. (If you do give information that might allow someone to locate them, I’ll edit your comment to remove those details.)  Rare plants, especially such things as orchids, have been known to disappear from sites that become known.  However, you should let the Michigan Natural Features Inventory know.  They’ll be tickled that three birds is not extinct in Michigan.–as will we all.

Posted in Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo), Plants and Plant Communities, Uncategorized | Comments closed