Category Archives: Nature

Articles on nature and the natural history of the Grand Traverse Region. From descriptions of geological strata or animals and plants of the Great Lakes states to nature walks and gardens of the region, this feature covers everything in the great outdoors.

The Green Machine by Moonlight

by William C. Scharf

Interior of 1946 Piper Cub. This particular plane was purchased by actor Steve McQueen for his wife, Barbara. Image courtesy of Steve McQueen Online.
Interior of 1946 Piper Cub. This particular plane was purchased by actor Steve McQueen for his wife, Barbara. Image courtesy of Steve McQueen Online.

I looked back at John from the front seat of the two-seat 1946 Piper Cub (PA-11). He had a firm grip on the control “stick” that was the main steering for the aircraft that was thirty-years old when I was its passenger in 1976. In this particular plane the “stick” was located in the back seat to facilitate dual-control training of novice pilots when a second “stick” was added for the front seat.

Piper Cubs were built in profusion (just shy of 20,000) before, during and after World War II. They had a tubular frame covered with fabric. The Cub’s little engine was around 65 horsepower; the manufacturer equipped the plane with engines built by several companies. There was no starter. Instead the pilot spun the propeller by hand until it started. The pilot was best advised to take great care to get out of the way of the propeller when the engine began to run. It could power the plane at 75-80 miles per hour– even with the floats that were used for landing on the water. When flying a Cub near a freeway, it is not uncommon to be outpaced by the cars below.

Piper Cubs, because of their simplicity and reliability, are still highly sought after. A large number of those built are still flying. Originally, most Cubs sported a snappy yellow paint job, but the one I was now riding in was painted all green. Hence, this plane’s nickname, the “green machine.”

Transparency and image from Bill’s report on his expedition by floatplane. Northwest Sugar Island, Chippewa County, Michigan. Image courtesy of the author.

It was Friday May 7, and just a few days earlier I had entered into a cooperative contract with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers to find and count nesting colonial waterbirds (gulls, terns, and herons) up to one mile inland along the U.S. Great Lakes shoreline. This was the first such census attempted in two consecutive seasons by a single group. The findings are summarized in my two books published by the sponsoring agencies. Each book has a different emphasis and they complement each other describing the whole project.

Because of other work commitments, John, my pilot, asked me to meet him at three in the afternoon at Spider Lake, where the “green machine” was kept. I was itching to “get my feet wet” in this my new bird census endeavor. I had never flown in a floatplane before, but had been convinced by a number of pilot friends that it was the perfect way to find the waterbird colonies, and then land to make a definitive count.

We headed southeasterly in the “green machine” over land toward the Ohio coast of Lake Erie to search for bird colonies. My thought was to do the southerly colonies first because the nesting started earlier there. It took our plodding Cub about three hours to get to the lakeshore and by then I felt a need to let out some of the coffee I had with lunch. John landed the plane near the shore of the Woodtick Peninsula and said I should stand on a float and let the coffee go. It is best to hold on tight to the plane while standing on the float! Hmm, so this is how we function in floatplanes?

Image from Bill’s 1977 expedition by floatplane. Unknown island with gull colony. Image courtesy of the author.

From there we flew up the Detroit River. I saw a few heron colonies and a couple of ring-billed gull colonies. The heron nests were easily counted from the air by circling, but John was reluctant to land at the gull colonies because the river current seemed too overwhelming for our little plane on take off. We gradually noted that it was getting late in the afternoon and mutually decided to search a portion of Saginaw Bay near Bay City before heading back to Spider Lake. I took some nice aerial photos of Channel and Shelter Islands near the Weadock power plant. These were the last aerial photos of this site before the islands were covered with dredged-material in order to deepen the Saginaw River shipping channel. The resulting new man-made island is now called the Saginaw confined disposal facility (CDF).

Now, the sun was going down fast. The retreating orb in the west was a beautiful sight from our altitude. The sinking sun, as we flew toward it, highlighted the curvature of the earth. The temperature had dropped, and it occurred to me that we faced an over land trip of more than two hours in progressive darkness and cold until we got back to Spider Lake. The pilot, John, seemed to be nodding off probably due to the fatigue of his regular job, flying airmail routes at night. He had flown on Thursday night, and was “off” now for Friday and Saturday nights. His upcoming time off was how he rationalized taking me in search of colonial nesting birds this afternoon. This was truly “moonlighting.” I looked back and his eyes were closed, although his hand seemed firmly on the “stick.” I said loudly, “John are you asleep?” To which he opened his eyes and said, ”just resting my eyes.” I am still not convinced of that.

As it grew darker, I said to John, “Is it about time to turn the lights on?” To which he answered, “don’t have any.” He added, “If someone else is coming we’ll see them first.” He indicated, pointing at the glass overhead window, a common standard element between the two wings of most Piper Cubs, “there’s nearly a full moon tonight with plenty of light to see things.” I took little comfort from that, but what choice did I have?

I sat quietly in the cold and dark until I finally could see the lake that John was aiming for. We descended in the darkness, despite the abundance of moonlight. Once the plane had dropped below the tree line the moonlight provided no benefit to see objects on the water.

1946 advertisement of the Piper Cub. Image courtesy of David at "Remarkably Retro,"
1946 advertisement of the Piper Cub. Image courtesy of David at “Remarkably Retro,”

I was picturing a late supper as we made our straight-in glide path to the cove we had departed from 6.3 hours earlier. Ah, the prospect of dry land again. But then, just as our floats were about to touch the water, a fisherman arose in a boat straight ahead of us. He held a flashlight in his hand and he was as convinced as I was that the approaching “green machine” represented his and our impending doom. John quickly, and in a panic, yanked the stick back, and we narrowly avoided a collision.

That was my first floatplane trip. I have managed to overcome my initial aversion, and have since spent many productive hours between sky and water doing bird censuses in newer and faster aircraft on floats. Some of the makers of these sleek floatplanes include: Cessna, Piper tri-pacer, Helio Courier, Fairchild, Seabee, and Maule, but none was as memorable as my first flight in the “green machine.” I have also had several floatplane pilots over the years and I want to thank them: Don, Ray, David, and Billy as well as John.

scharf-reportFor those interested in the results of Bill’s study, he reports:

We found 267 colonies, mostly gulls, but also terns herons and cormorants, on islands. Some ring-billed gull colonies were over 50 thousand nests and took ten people 2 days to count. The study area spanned 522 miles (No.-So.) and 787 miles east to west.  From Pigeon Pt, Minnesota to Cape Vincent, New York.

The original paper may be found online at the Northwestern Michigan College library:

Scharf, W. C. 1978. Colonial Birds Nesting on Man-made and Natural Sites in The U.S. Great Lakes. Tech. Rpt. D-78-10, U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Expt. Sta. Vicksburg, Miss. 136p. + Append. A-D.

Bill Scharf is Professor Emeritus at Northwestern Michigan College where he led students on scientific study trips on Lake Michigan islands for 27 years. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, and Masters and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He has studied harriers in Wisconsin and Orkney, Scotland, colonial nesting seabirds and migrating songbirds on the Great Lakes, and for 4 years after his NMC retirement, was Associate Director of the Biological Station at the University of Nebraska. While in Nebraska he wrote the Birds of North America account of the Orchard Oriole as well as studies on islands in the Platte River. He returned to Michigan to direct the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, and currently resides in Traverse City.

The Big Blow-down: How the Wind Storm of 2015 Affected Local Forests

The overhead canopy opens to the sky. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
The overhead canopy opens to the sky. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Anyone living in Northwest Lower Michigan within a region extending from Leelanau through Kalkaska counties, will not forget the big storm of August 2, 2015.  It was one of those signature events that cause you to remember exactly where you were when it happened.  I was on the phone with a friend: we talked nervously, wondering when the connection would go dead, all the while thinking we should both head for our separate closets in case the roofs of our homes should blow away.  Trees bent the way you see them do in videos of hurricanes and trash containers became missiles driven by the wind.  In fact, on the basis of observed damage, the wind speed did exceed that of a category 2 hurricane in places, more than 100 miles per hour.

Tipped trees expose roots and soil. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
Tipped trees expose roots and soil. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

What do storms like that do to forests?  Are there winners and losers in such a catastrophe?  What effects can be observed after one, fifty, and a hundred years later?  These are the questions that intrigued me as I walked through a devastated forest in Leelanau county, a few weeks after the Big Blow.  Mostly, the trees tipped, though a few were broken off at the middle.  Earthen mounds containing tree roots made walking difficult as you took circuitous routes to get to places that used to be reached directly.  The uneven ground of mature forests is due to tipped trees, some brought down a century or more ago.  That is one long-term consequence of the storm: the hills and valleys of the new forest could remain for centuries.

A hardwoods in Michigan is generally covered with last year’s un-decomposed leaves from last two or three years.  Called leaf litter, it acts as a blanket, keeping moisture in and repelling the growth of small wildflowers, ferns, and other small plants.  When the leaf litter is torn apart as it is when a tree tips over, opportunities abound for seeds waiting for their chance.  They sprout and grow rapidly, their growth speeded by sunlight that touches the forest floor as tree canopies no longer provide shade.  Along with natives, invasive plants like garlic mustard thrive in the disturbed ground.  It is a changed habitat for all and those best adapted take advantage of their genetic heritage.

Shade-intolerant black cherry sprouts under an open canopy. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
Shade-intolerant black cherry sprouts under an open canopy. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Certain trees win out in the competition for sunlight, casting others in shade as they overtop them.  Shade intolerant trees grow the fastest—birch, black cherry, poplar red pine—while shade tolerant trees like sugar maple, American beech, and white pine bide their time in their shade.  Before long, only the seedlings of those trees will dominate the forest floor, since only they can tolerate summers’ complete shade.  Poplars and black cherry (together with scattered oaks and maples) will dominate the first generation of trees on the hilly moraines of Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties.  In time, they will be replaced by hemlock, beech, and a more dense population of sugar and red maples.

Epicormic sprouts on sugar maple. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
Epicormic sprouts on sugar maple. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Naturally, a few middle-sized trees will survive a massive blow-down after a storm.  After wind storm, with sunlight flooding in as the dense overhead canopy disappears, they respond to the changed conditions for growth.  Buds under the bark spring to life, sending out small, leafy branches.  Called epicormic sprouting, this phenomenon has serious consequences for those wishing perfect timber for logging, since the wood grain is interrupted by new vascular tissue that supplies the new branch.  Look for epicormic sprouting in forests damaged by the August 2nd storm.

Invasive white poplar sprouts race towards the sun. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
Invasive white poplar sprouts race towards the sun. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Secondary effects of a severe windstorm are too numerous to count.  The loss of nests and dens that occupied old trees, the loss of stable food sources like acorns and beechnuts, the disappearance of animals that prefer the cool, deep shade of a mature forest (like land snails), and the opening of hilly terrain to erosion are four obvious ones, but even those only scratch the surface.  Of course, the winners will move in—the deer that browse on shoots of poplar, ground squirrels, rabbits, blackberries and raspberries, and uncountable weed species—as the older residents die or move out.  It is a scene that has been re-enacted for untold thousands of years.

Shade-tolerant white pines under oak canopy. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.
Shade-tolerant white pines under oak canopy. Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Whenever something catastrophic happens in nature, we know it is wrong to take sides—since some living things require the housecleaning that enables them to thrive.  At the same time, we cannot help but grieve for what has been lost.  After all, isn’t a mature hardwoods rarer and more precious than acreage covered by poplar sprouts?  Virgin timber is very hard to find in Northern Michigan: Ever since the nineteenth century loggers have destroyed those ecosystems without mercy.  So it is that we feel a pang in our hearts when the big trees go down and the sunlight pours in.  We know we have lost something that took centuries to form.  The Big Blow damaged far more than human property.  It destroyed a natural relic that is not easily replaced.

A Kiss of Death: The Life of the Sea Lamprey

There are few animals in the world that get less respect than lampreys.  They are ugly, lacking fins and the grace of a recognizable face.  They are slimy.  They are deemed inedible, at least in the United States.  They parasitize fish we like to eat.  They are the animals we love to hate, and yet…

Image of sea lampry mouth parts. Photo courtesy of I, Drow male, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Image of lamprey mouth parts. Photo courtesy of I, Drow male, CC BY-SA 3.0,

My encounters with lampreys have been few, but always interesting.  There was the time my fish class went to a lamprey weir many years ago, and allowed them to suck onto the palms of students’ hands.  Lacking jaws, that is all they could do—give us an intense rubbery kiss.  Perhaps it was the time of year or else the disgusting nature of mammal skin, but they did not try to bore into our flesh to suck our blood as they might do with the Lake Trout.  It was hard to detach, its body not offering traction for the other hand to pull it off (scraping turned out to be the best method).

"Sea lamprey traps often produce by-catch. This native silver lamprey was found in the trap and released back into the St. Mary's River." Photo and caption courtesy of Joanna Gilkeson, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest,
“Sea lamprey traps often produce by-catch. This native silver lamprey was found in the trap and released back into the St. Mary’s River.” Photo and caption courtesy of Joanna Gilkeson, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest,

Earlier that day we had gone upstream with a box sieve, a wooden frame with a wire screen affixed to the bottom, to capture immature lampreys.  We would plunge it into a muddy bank and swish it around in the water to wash out the mud and silt.  What was left were—among other invertebrates—many several-inch long young lampreys.  Many, if not most, were native to Michigan, not having invaded by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway as the parasitic sea lamprey did.

Our native lampreys seem content to wallow in the mud, straining out organisms from the water with gill filaments.  They transform into adults, mate, lay eggs, and die, much as salmon do.  The sea lamprey goes one step farther, leaving its stream for the Great Lakes, feeding off fish such as Lake Trout for one year or more, finally returning to a stream to lay eggs and die.

Because lampreys return to streams to spawn and die, they can be controlled by several methods.  The simplest of these is to erect a dam to keep them from migrating upstream where they may find gravel beds for spawning and muddy banks for nurturing the young larvae.  The Union Street dam serves this purpose in Traverse City.  Unlike Brown Bridge dam upstream, it will not be removed, in part, because of this useful function.  Another method of controlling sea lampreys is to poison them periodically with poisons that work only on lampreys.  It is necessary to use these chemicals once every several years because the larvae spend so much time buried on mud, feeding on microscopic organisms.

Oddly, we humans are related to these creatures.  While lacking a jaw and a skeleton made of bone, lampreys have a nerve cord running along its back, a larval rod-like structure in its back that evolved into a backbone, and gill slits towards the mouth.  We all have those features as embryos, but they change into other things as we develop.  Our gill slits morph into a jaw and the structures in our necks, and our dorsal nerve cord lies within a bony column of vertebrae.

Lampreys and their kin are the ancestors of the dominant groups that we know today: the bony fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals.  They are evolutionary throwbacks, relics of a time that preceded the appearance of more modern vertebrates.

Sea lampry adhered to lake trout. Image available in Public Domain,
Sea lamprey adhered to lake trout. Image available in Public Domain,

The kiss of a lamprey is singularly unrewarding, both for that animal and for us.  To an appropriate fish it is the kiss of death, since many fish die as their blood is drained out.  It is a kiss of death: Is that the reason we cannot love these animals—they plague our sleep with night terrors?  Are we remembering our ancestral past when, as fish, we felt the sucking disk attach to our side, the creepy sensation that spelled our doom?  Should we let down our fears as the Europeans have done to feast upon these animals?  I don’t know—you go first.

However, should any readers be inspired to extend their range of culinary skill, I offer this recipe for the preparation of sea lampreys.  It was taken from the Middle Ages, so cooking methods will seem a bit unorthodox.  However, the success of the preparation may explain why King Henry I of England died from eating a surfeit of lampreys.  He could not hold himself back from eating them all.

At Play with the Water Bears

There are some animals that astound us by their oddity: the “duck-billed” platypus because it lays eggs, the sea horse because the male broods the young, the ant lion because it digs pits that entrap ants.   Tardigrades beat them all, different in so many respects scientists scarcely know where to fit them in on the evolutionary family tree.  They are like aliens, come from another galaxy far away.

Image courtesy of Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) - Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) Comparative proteome analysis of Milnesium tardigradum in early embryonic state versus adults in active and anhydrobiotic state. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045682, CC BY 2.5,
Image courtesy of Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) – Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012) Comparative proteome analysis of Milnesium tardigradum in early embryonic state versus adults in active and anhydrobiotic state. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045682, CC BY 2.5,

Sometimes called water bears, they lumber about on eight clawed legs, looking ungainly and a bit loveable with their antics.  Possessing odd mouthparts with sharp stylets that pierce the plants upon which they feed, they suck out cell contents as if with a straw.  Did I mention that they love mosses and lichens—and that they require a microscope to be seen?

I have encountered them twice in my career.  First, long ago, I took a course in mosses.  Upon immersing those organisms in water to rehydrate them, tardigrades associated with them spring back to life, too: like instant coffee, you just add water to get the thing you want (in this case, a living being). 

The other time I saw them was at the beach when I would dig holes near the water’s edge and watch them fill up with water.  Upon examining that water under the microscope, I discovered enormous numbers of water bears.  My research tells me that, in addition to mosses, they eat algae and one-cell creatures, too.  If they can be found among the grains of sand at a beach, no doubt they can be found in many other unsuspected places all around us.

Image provided by Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab - Template:Uploader Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5,
Image provided by Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab – Template:Uploader Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5,

Besides being cute, tardigrades are known for their resilience.  They can be dehydrated and pop back to life after years in dormancy; they can be frozen to absolute zero, the temperature of outer space, and resume their normal lives without an iota of stress or worry; they can be boiled, scarcely feeling the heat.  In short, they appear to be super-animals.

If you wish to see water bears, do what I did: rinse a clump of moss with water, allow the washing water to settle and then use a medicine dropper to suck up some debris.  Surely, through your microscope  you will see the creatures lumbering about in search of food or a mate.  If you do not wish to take the trouble to corral your own animals, you may visit this web site to study them second-hand:

Tactics of Pigeon Hunters: Passenger Pigeons in Benzie County, 1880s

Dear Readers:
This follow-up article to one published in our March issue on Passenger Pigeons was inspired by the following correspondence your editors received from an admiring reader:
“I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article on passenger pigeons.  Since the topic isn’t discussed very much I thought I would seize the opportunity to share some of my notes on the topic.
A unique source (locally) is a personal history, “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,” that resides at the Benzie Shores District Library, with copies of it held at the Benzie Area Historical Museum.  Mr. Slyfield’s history is thirty-some pages and covers commercial fishing, tug operations, the history of Frankfort, and his dog Hero in addition to pigeon hunting. ~ Andy B.”
Naturally, our regular contributor Stewart McFerran took to this new resource with a renewed vigor on the subject of Passenger Pigeons. Charles B. Slyfield (1854-1924) was a fisherman and lighthouse keeper at Frankfort, in addition to a hunter.  ~ Your editors at Grand Traverse Journal

by Stewart A. McFerran

Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from "The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News", 3 July 1875.
Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from “The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News”, 3 July 1875.

About the first of May we pitched our tent and set and baited the traps. Father had hired William Salsgiver and his net to work with us as he was an expert pigeon trapper. The pigeons nested up river about five miles and would fly just as soon as day would break. The first flight would be all males. Then about 7 a.m. the females would start and keep it up until about 10 a.m.

Father rented 40 acres of marsh land on the South side of the Betsy River where there was situated a salt spring and pigeon marsh where the pigeons would assemble in great numbers to eat the muck and drink the water.   (A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,  published in 1912)

Needless to say a slaughter of passenger pigeons ensued. However, these observations from Slyfield’s younger years bring up some questions with regard to the extinct bird. Why would they “eat the muck”? Was there some sort of larva or invertebrate that was nutritious within the muck? Or was there a mineral that the birds craved?

The segregated flights from the nesting ground to the feeding ground is in itself a fascinating detail.

In addition to nesting habits, Slyfield provides detail on their cross-lake roosting and feeding habits: “Old hunters and sailors tell me that great numbers of pigeons had their roost in Wisconsin and flew to Michigan each morning to feed on Michigan beechnuts.” By his reckoning, as the pigeons flew at a speed of I believe 180 miles an hour, they could cross the lake in 20 minutes. [Note: the fastest bird is said to be the white throated needletail which can attain a speed of 105 mph in horizontal flight]

Readers of Slyfield’s biography can appreciate the detail he offers about the pigeons, and we realize this deep understanding of the pigeons’ habits were also just the thing that allow hunters to exploit them in such a shamelessly unsustainable way. Certainly, as Slyfield includes the Passenger Pigeon extinction event in his memoir, he must have realized by the end of his life what it meant for the ecology of the region. Details of ecological relationships that Passenger Pigeons had are fascinating.

Another Benzie County native, author Bruce Catton, also wrote about the tactics of Passenger Pigeon hunters, some years after Slyfield’s death:

Men caught birds alive by fastening big nets to the tops of springy saplings, fastening the nets close to the ground, baiting the area and then springing the trap when the birds came to eat; it was said that a single trap would catch from three to five hundred pigeons.

James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.
James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.

The new theology has borrowed, without credit, one of the fundamental planks in the old religion: despite his disclaimers, man stands at the center of the universe. It was made for him to use, and the best and wisest men are those who use it most lavishly. They destroy pine forests, and dig copper from beneath the cold northern lake, and run the open pits across the iron ranges, impoverishing themselves at the same time they are enriching themselves; creating wealth, in short by the act of destroying it, which is one of the most baffling mysteries of the new gospel.

Before “sustainability” terminology was coined and in common use, Catton wrote about “the mysteries of the new gospel” in his 1972 memoir Waiting for the Morning Train. This, in my view, makes him not just an important writer of history but an unappreciated environmental writer.

We may not be able to watch the majesty of a cloud of Passenger Pigeons in the sky today, but the vivid descriptions Slyfield and Catton survive on as a record of their existence, even if questions about their muck-eating remain unanswered. Hopefully, their writings also provide a sobering reminder for those who would abuse our Region’s natural resources.

Copies of Mr. Slyfield’s biography are available for review at the Benzie Shores District Library, and for sale at the Empire Area Museum. Copies of Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train are available for checkout at the Traverse Area District Library.

Stewart A. McFerran is an outdoor enthusiast and regular Benzie-area contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

How High the Moon?

When a former science teacher can’t sleep, questions come unbidden to occupy his consciousness.  So it was one cloudy night when I conceived the following question: Does the full moon make a high arc across the sky during winter or a low one?  After some consideration, I proposed an answer: at the solstice (December 20 or thereabouts), the full moon should mount high in the sky before it begins to set.  Conversely, it should have a low trajectory in summer, never getting very high at all.

Such a question is hardly of the complexity Albert Einstein entertained when he came up with the General Theory of Relativity, but then—I am not Einstein.   Little questions are fun to explore as well as big ones, and if you don’t achieve fame, at least you gain a small glow of joy when you get something right.

My reasoning went like this.  All the planets, the sun, and the moon travel on a pathway across the sky called the ecliptic, which travels through all the constellations of the Zodiac.  Why they all do this is well known: they all formed from matter that formed a disc around the sun.  While some are more out of kilter than others, basically they race around on the same racetrack, moving from constellation to constellation over the course of the year. 

The sun at winter’s solstice is in Sagittarius, a constellation that—in Traverse City, at least—is viewed low in the south in summer.  That is why it doesn’t get very high in the sky (and why the weather is so cold) in winter.  When the moon is full, it is 180 degrees away from the sun—and must be in the constellation directly opposite Sagittarius, the constellation of Gemini.  So…when the winter moon is full, it must rise high in the sky, at winter solstice higher than at any other time.

Comforted with that solution, I went to sleep, the agitations of my brain somewhat quieted.  I would only have to wait for the next clear night around the full moon to see if I was right.  I expected to see the moon at midnight, high up in the sky, as high as the sun gets at mid-day in June.

And that is what I saw.  There it was, its brightness blotting out Gemini (though I confess, I did not want to get out of bed, get out my binoculars, and go outside to check out the stars on this cold night).  My hypothesis was tested and was proved right!  Such triumphs are the things that illuminate my life.

Now I must wait for the full moon in June, which, according to my theory, should hug the horizon, often getting lost in the branches of trees and behind hills all around.   You will help me check that out, won’t you?  After all, June is just four months away, and you won’t have to sacrifice yourself to the elements: Just bring a blanket and a bottle of your favorite beverage to enjoy the moon hanging low in the sky. 

Of course, you can watch the moon ride high even in March—if you are content to look at the first-quarter moon.  It will be in Gemini, just as the full moon was at the winter solstice.  Check it out—but first, while you are trying to sleep, hunker down and visualize why that must be so.  That is what I do.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.

A Forgotten Voice: The Wind in the Trees

A landscape presents a view of the land, a seascape, a view of the sea.  A soundscape shows us the panorama of sound around us: the roar of engines, the cheers of a crowd, the ever-present music that attends our presence in stores, the luff of wind in a sail.  We cannot avoid soundscapes; silence is one, too, and the most important, since it frames the rest.

I will not talk of silence, but of the soundscape of the forest, the sound of wind in the trees.  That sound, tuned out by most of us as we rush about attending to our duties, does not present a single soundscape, but a variety of them.  The sound of the wind through white pines is one, and its pitch changes with its speed.  Then there is chatter of trembling aspen, not just trembling, but leaves striking each other forcefully, percussion without end.  The scraping of oak leaves left in winter gives a sound picture of a February day, a memory of the warmer days of autumn.  A gale through bare branches rocks the trees as it fills the air with a sound we are at loss to describe.  Trees are musical instruments of the wind.

Thoreau had an affinity for the wind through the pines:

The white pines in the horizon, either single trees or whole wood, are particularly interesting. The wind is making passes over them, magnetizing and electrifying them…This is the brightening and awakening of the pines…As if in this wind-storm of March a certain electricity was passing from heaven to earth through the pines and calling them to life. ~ Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1855-1861

In her childhood diary, Opal Whitely speaks of the whisperings of leaves in the wind:

Now are coming the days of brown leaves.  They fall from the trees.  They flutter on the ground.  When the brown leaves flutter, they are saying little things.  They talk with the wind.  I hear them tell of their borning days when they did come into the world as leaves.  And they whisper of the hoods they wore then.  I saw them.  I use to count them on the way to school.  Today they were talking of the time before their borning days of this spring time.  They talked on and on, and I did listen on to what they were telling the wind and the earth in their whisperings.  They told how they were a part of earth and air before their tree-borning days.  And how they were going back.  In gray days of winter they go back to the earth again.  But they do not die.  ~The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart (p.56) 

There is a word that describes the sound of wind in the leaves: psithurism (pronounced: SITH-ur-iz-m).  It is obsolete, but I would like to do what I can to bring it back to life.  For the most part, words that describe things people used to experience in nature have been replaced by those that point to technology: smart-phone, email, wi-fi, blue-ray, and all the rest.  Would it be too much to wake people up to psithurism, a word that refers to something we all hear regularly?

Research is unclear as to whether excessive noise causes mental anguish, but here the wrong question has been asked.  Better than asking if noise has harmful effects on our bodies and minds, is asking if quiet and psithurism can uplift us.  For me, it does. 

To be reminded of psithurism, you can always go to the internet and click on an appropriate link, here and here, but it is better to go outside on a windy day and just listen.  Behind the sounds of traffic, the wail of sirens, the distant roar of aircraft, the barking of dogs, you will hear the rustling of leaves and the singing of pine needles.  It is always there on windy days, yet we have learned to tune it out.  Let us learn to listen.

Copies of Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow : The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley and Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau are available for checkout at Traverse Area District Library.

Lichens: A Broken Piece of Life, Wretched bits of being

O broken life! O wretched bits of being,
Unrhythmic, patched, the even and the odd!
But Bradda still has lichens worth the seeing,
And thunder in her caves—thank God! Thank God!
– Thomas Edward Brown, quoted in
Lichens of North America, p. 3

More than 24,000 souls are buried in Oakwood Cemetery on Eighth Street.  Their monuments fill sixty acres all told, the earliest ones dating from the 1860s.  They are made of limestone, granite, and even zinc, the last material only used for a few persons buried between 1885 and 1890.  Draped urns, lambs, weeping willows, angels, passages of Scripture—even baby shoes—are carved on them, symbols of grief and the hope of life to come.  Besides these human expressions of emotion are marks Nature herself bestows upon the stone as a reminder of continual change: lichens.

Foliose lichen, characterized by their leafy appearance. Image courtesy of the author.
Foliose lichen, characterized by their leafy appearance. Image courtesy of the author.

Lichens are informally called “moss” by most people, but are different from that organism.  Mosses have leaves and stems, for one thing, and lichens do not.  A moss is a single organism, every cell with moss DNA, while a lichen is like a chimera (an animal made up of two different kinds—like a centaur).  Its body is made of a fungus which has captured a colored food-making element, an alga or a kind of bacteria. Often forming a crust or spreading as a leaf-like thallus over a stone monument, many of them are stunning, especially when examined under a ten-power lens.

We think of organisms only when they impact our lives and, in this regard, lichens are no different from other living things.  What good are they?  What harm do they do?  What is their role in nature?  These questions tug at us even as we admire their beauty.

We can’t eat them, though a few cultures—like the Inuit–manage to extract scant nourishment in extreme habitats like the arctic.  They colonize our statues and monuments, their slender filaments penetrating even hard granite to a few millimeters and softer limestone to a depth of 16 millimeters (more than a half inch).  Lichens are colonizers: they move onto unfriendly substrates like tree bark, barren soil, or rock, creating patches of organic matter which are taken over by more complex plants like mosses and ferns.  They are pioneers.

Crustose lichens form a crust that strongly adheres to the substrate (here, a granite tombstone), making separation from the substrate impossible without destruction. Image courtesy of the author.
Crustose lichens form a crust that strongly adheres to the substrate (here, a granite tombstone), making separation from the substrate impossible without destruction. Image courtesy of the author.

Lichens are not friends to sextons of cemeteries.  Degrading statuary and carvings, they make inscriptions hard to read, obscuring names and dates.  Only the scattered zinc monuments are free of the problem, that surface providing scant toeholds for colonization.  Inscriptions on the oldest stones are scarcely legible, so encrusted with green and orange lichen growth that observers vainly scratch them away to capture the names and dates of persons long forgotten.

Yet we should not despise lichens, for they charm us with their intricate structure.  Under the lens, some of them present an array of disks aimed upward, not to catch something from above but to give something off: spores.  Called apothecia, these miniature dishes produce millions of fungal spores which enter the streams of the wind.  Upon landing in a fertile place, they send out tiny threads and wait for the landing of the right bacteria or algae, photosynthetic cells responsible for growth. 

A variety of lichens, clinging to tombstones at Oakwood Cemetery, Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.
A variety of lichens, clinging to tombstones at Oakwood Cemetery, Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.

Slowly the colonies grow, and we should be glad, since lichens only thrive wherever the air is pure and clean.  It is well known that tree trunks downwind from polluting industries are bare of lichens.  When our tree trunks are bare of them in Northern Michigan, when gravestones stand without those round patches of sage green, orange, and yellow, then we will know that the air has gone bad.  We should take joy in the lichens around us.

Books of most interest to readers are Michigan Lichens by local author Julie Medlin and the ponderous Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff.  Both of them may be found in the Traverse Area District Library.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

“I vant to suck your blood”: Encountering Leeches in Northern Michigan

A naturalist must cope with whatever Nature deals out.  Once when I took a course in invertebrates, I had to walk through shallow, warm ponds in the middle of summer, an action that would surely attract leeches (known by some as bloodsuckers).  Sure enough, after traipsing through one particularly muddy body of water, I looked down to discover that one had attached to my leg.  It was not only attached, but was apparently feeding: it wouldn’t let go.

When one’s life blood is being sucked out by a predator, one does not always behave rationally.  Not entertaining the notion of spraying an offensive chemical on the animal so it would let go on its own, I used my fingernails to scrape it off.  Not a good idea.  The wound bled and bled, taking twenty minutes or so to stop.  Thus, I learned about the anti-coagulant properties of leech saliva: leech bites don’t readily stop bleeding because the creature injects hirudin, an chemical that prevents the blood from clotting.

The wound didn’t hurt—I am told the clever leech employs an anesthetic as well as an anti-coagulant.  It would never do to annoy a mammal to the point it would forcibly remove the animal feeding off it.: better to feed quietly and drop off to browse, sated with food and satisfied for any number of months to come.

This predator leech—the word “predator” is more appropriate than “parasite” since it feeds for only minutes instead of days and months—was Macrobdella decora, the American medicinal leech, the red-bellied leech.  As its name implies, it sports an attractively decorated array of red spots, a possible design pattern for a necktie or a scarf.  The animal is a distant relative of the earthworm with its concentric rings that encircle its body, marking off no fewer than 34 segments.

While the practice of leeching, using leeches to bleed patients, has fallen into disfavor since the nineteenth century, it still is occasionally employed in modern medicine whenever it is necessary to increase circulation to a blood-starved part of the body such as a newly reattached finger that has been accidently cut off, for example.  I remember distinctly that in our own Munson hospital not too many years ago, a young girl had a finger reattached and submitted to treatment with leeches.  “It’s kissing my finger,” she would tell visitors.  Indeed, in a way, it was.

Most leeches do not feed upon mammals, preferring frogs, fish, and, especially, snapping turtles.  Some do not attack large animals at all, being satisfied with earthworms and smaller creatures found in water.  One of the largest leeches to be found in the area, its body extending a full six inches or more, seldom feeds on humans or their pets–the horse leech, Haemopis marmorata.  I have observed this creature in Lime Lake, Leelanau County, where it can be seen rapidly scudding across the marly bottom, fully as capable of swimming as a fish.

Haemopis sanguisuga, or horse leech. Image courtesy of H. Krisp, Wikimedia Commons.
Haemopis sanguisuga, or horse leech. Image courtesy of H. Krisp, Wikimedia Commons.

Horse leeches sometimes are found on mud at the edge of the water.  If they are grabbed to use for bait—as bass or walleye fishermen will occasionally do—they will readily try to climb out of the bucket, unlike other more docile species.  

Leeches are given a bad rap.  They seldom bite, they do not spread disease, they have medical uses, and they make good bait.  However, the idea of having our blood sucked does not go down well with us.  We despise things that do that–mosquitoes, black flies, or biting midges—and we cut them no slack.  Perhaps, we should, though, with leeches. After all, they do us little harm–much less than mosquitoes—and at least one of them, Macrobdella decora, looks terrific!

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Header image courtesy of Tim Eisele at “The Backyard Arthropod Project”, American Medical Leech.

Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes

When you look out at Power Island, South Manitou, or Mackinac Island, you see a tiered wedding cake apparition rising from the water.  Often we take that appearance at face value, never asking the important question, “How did it come to be that way?”  Indeed, there is an explanation and it is not hard to understand.

A moraine is a glacially-formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris that occurs in formerly glaciated regions. Image courtesy of Illinois State Genealogical Society.
A moraine is a glacially-formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris that occurs in formerly glaciated regions. Image courtesy of Illinois State Genealogical Society.

Most residents of the Traverse area know that the Lakes were carved out by glaciers—and not so long ago in geologic time.  The last major advance was 14,000 years ago, with secondary advances occurring as late as 12,000 years ago.  This continental glacier was a mile thick in places, certainly big enough to carry boulders to unlikely places, make north-south gouges in underlying bedrock, and form moraines both at the endpoints of its advances and at points where the glaciers simply melted, letting down its cargo of rocks, gravel, and sand.  The steep, winding path of M-72 going up from West Bay climbs the end moraine of the last glacial advance.

What does the glacier have to do with the wedding cake appearance of islands in the upper Great Lakes?  The terraces far above the present lake levels are beaches created during our glacial past when the water took different pathways to drain the melted ice water.

As the ice retreated, that water left the Upper Great Lakes by way of the Chicago River to the west and Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River to the east.  This was a high water level, the surface of future Lakes Michigan and Lake Huron standing at 605 feet above sea level.  Since the present level of those lakes is 535 feet, an ancient beach can observed high above the water on Mackinac Island—the uppermost tier.  The combined waters of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan formed a single expanse called Lake Algonquin.

Stages of development of Lake Algonquin, "Glacial lakes". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Stages of development of Lake Algonquin, “Glacial lakes”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Later, retreating ice opened a drainage pattern through Georgian Bay and out through Ontario by way of the Ottawa River.  This event marked a low water stage for the Upper Lakes, a state that was not preserved very long. 

As the weight of the glacier left the land, it sprang back up much like a trampoline relieved of a hurtling athlete.  The effect was to cut off the drainage directly through Canada and bring back the familiar pattern through the Chicago River and the Detroit River.  Another high water level stage resulted, this time resulting in a combined lake comprising Lakes Michigan and Huron called Lake Nipissing.  Lake Nipissing beaches are lower than Lake Algonquin’s, but they can be seen readily on Power Island and the Manitous. 

The Great Lakes are constantly changing: the land is still springing back as a consequence of the disappearance of the glacier and changes in precipitation and evaporation (as well as human use) cause year-to-year, decade-to-decade changes.  Climate change might cause rapid changes, low water stages resulting from increased evaporation or high water stages coming from increased precipitation.  As yet, a clear pattern has not emerged.

The story of the Great Lakes is charmingly told in a Canadian Film Board movie, The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes, which we reference here:

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.