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.

New Book on Natural Phenomenon, Organisms in Northern Michigan on sale now

Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan contains over thirty essays by the esteemed Dr. Richard Fidler. (Before you ask, no, he is not standing near me engaging in threatening gestures as I write this review. It is a totally unsolicited piece, however, the quality of this collection should be commended on the highest mountaintops and lowest freshwater sponge-riddle waterways. For real.)

Image from Fidler’s essay as it was originally published in “Grand Traverse Journal.” Turst me, Fidler’s drawings are much more appealing and less repulsive. Image of sea lampry mouth parts. Photo courtesy of I, Drow male, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Long time readers of Grand Traverse Journal will recognize parts of some of the essays, as many of Fidlers’ first iterations of these essays were published in this very magazine, a very distinguished honor to be sure! He covers nearly everything we regular, un-inquisitive folk visually pass right over, from ant nuptials to Trailing Arbutus. He includes the misunderstood milk snake, the repulsive sea lamprey, and the confusing clubmoss, giving each organism he sets his sights on the respect they are due. What are these things, and what, if anything, do they do? You will find these answers and more in this collection.

This is a truly unique collection, one I have not seen the like of before. Often, descriptions of the flora and fauna that are not well-loved (seal pups and baby orangutans, for example) are limited to brief, uninteresting, and ultimately uninformative encyclopedic clap-trap. Take, for example, this description of freshwater sponges from Britannica:  

“Freshwater sponge, any of about 20 species of the genus Spongilla (class Demospongiae, siliceous sponges), a common, widely occurring group. Spongilla species are found in clean lake waters and slow streams. Freshwater sponges are delicate in structure, growing as encrusting or branching masses. They usually appear greenish because of the algae that live on them.”

Boooooorrrrringgggg. Also, nothing about what really interests me, which is primarily, what would this thing be like to squish between my fingers, and where can I see one in northern Michigan? Fidler answers both questions in his essay Godzilla vs. Spongilla: A Contrast in Lifestyles.

Perhaps you are interested in all things unique to our region? Fidler covers local phenomenon including ventifact fields and lag gravel, seiches specifically in Grand Traverse Bay, how the windstorm of 2015 affected local forests a year later, and other similar curiosities.

See what I mean? Adorable lil water bears, and they look even cuture in Fidler’s drawings. Image provided by Willow Gabriel, Goldstein Lab – Template:Uploader Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5,

Truly, one of my favorite additions to these essays is Fidler’s hand drawn illustrations. Unlike in Grand Traverse Journal, which I typically illustrate on his behalf by using just okay, public domain images, you will get to see these organisms through the artistic pen of a man who cares. My favorite? The image of the water bear, which you can see in the essay At Play With Water Bears. I’ve never thought of Tardigrades as adorable before, but I certainly do now!

“But Amy, I’m not excited by nature, what does this collection have for me?” If you are one of these people (and I’m not accusing you if you are), I dare say you have not looked at the world around you with Richard Fidler. His writing is informative, engaging, quick, and light. If you believe you have no interest in its content, I challenge you to pick up a copy, flip to any random page, and not be fascinated by some tidbit you had never considered before. This would be a fun book to read with a younger person who is just getting interested in the creepy-crawlies whom we share the world with. Impress your friends, astound your enemies, and open your eyes to the natural world of Northern Michigan with Fidler as your guide!

Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan is on sale at Horizon Books, 243 E. Front Street, Traverse City; and online at

Kalkaska Sand: Michigan’s State Soil

The state of Michigan has a state flower: the apple blossom; it has a state bird: the American robin; it has a state wildflower: the Dwarf Lake Iris; it has a state gem: Lake Superior greenstone; it has a state stone: the Petoskey stone; and it has a state soil: Kalkaska sand.

Sandy barrens forest with pines, a typical landscape supported by Kalkaska Sand. Image courtesy of Joshua G. Cohen, Michigan State Extension.

Wait!  A state soil?  Who would care enough to advocate for a state soil?  As a student of nature, I know that there can be only one answer—and correct me if I am wrong: a soil science class somewhere pushed state legislators for the adoption of Kalkaska sand as the state soil–and got the job done.

Pine barrens, Burlington County, New Jersey. Pine barrens are a typical sight in Michigan as well, supported by Kalkaska Soil. Image courtesy of

What of this Kalkaska sand, then?  Besides a location where it is found, what more is to be said about it?  Is it the soil that made this state rich in agriculture, the soil that grows soybeans, corn, potatoes, and fruit?  Perhaps it is the rich mucky soil found around Kalamazoo that used to produce so much celery that the city was once called Celery City?  Or, is it the fabled soil close to Michigan’s thumb with rich, black humus that goes down two feet or more?

No, it is none of these things.  Kalkaska is located in the pine barrens of Northern Michigan.  It once grew white pine, red pine, jack pine, and a variety of oaks—and still does between logging operations.  It generally does not grow crops successfully, especially those requiring moisture retention—like soybeans, for example.  The parent material of Kalkaska sand, is, unsurprisingly, a coarse sand that let’s water percolate through easily.  It dries out quickly between rains.

Kalkaska soil profile; photo from USDA: State Soils.

The parent material of a soil is made up of varying amounts of clay, silt, and sand, those particles graded in size from very small to quite coarse.  A clayey soil—most common in Southern Michigan—contains microscopic grains that retain moisture well–while sand is gritty, unable to retain water; silt is somewhere in between.  Soils that are most versatile contain fair measures of clay, silt, and sand: they are termed loamy soils.

In Northern Michigan a soil much prized for cultivation of many crops—corn through potatoes—is Emmet till, a loamy sand that takes on a reddish hue when moist.  It is commonly found plastered upon the hills of the region, the glacial morraines that cover much of Leelanau and Benzie counties as well as other nearby places.  When you take a handful of it, and squeeze, you get a gritty ball that sticks together, unlike Kalkaska sand that slithers through your fingers like dry sugar when compressed.

All of the soils in Northern Michigan—and in Michigan generally—are transported, in the sense that the glaciers brought down the parent material from the north.  Elsewhere, as in the Southern states, soil developed from underlying rock layers as they weathered.  Commonly, such soils are made of reddish clay that dries almost as hard as concrete in droughty summers.  Root crops—like potatoes—and flowers like lilies—struggle under such conditions.

Kalkaska soil landscape in Michigan; photo from USDA: State Soils.

Emmet till naturally supports hardwood forests made up of Sugar Maple, Red Maple, North American beech, American basswood, White Ash (now gone), and Eastern Hemlock, while Kalkaska sand (and its related sandy relatives) grow pines and oaks.  From the beginning, settlers to the area recognized the fact that hardwoods made better farms than pines.  Many abandoned homesteads are to be found in the sandy barrens of Nothern Michigan, testimony to the difficulty of making a living on such unpromising soil.

So, why should Kalkaska sand achieve such recognition?  My theory is this: the state tree of Michigan is the White Pine, and for good reason–it supported the logging industry that eventually tamed a vast Michigan wilderness.  That being the case, then what soil grows white pines in abundance?  You know the answer—Kalkaska sand.

For more information about the soils in Michigan, check out the soil surveys published by the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, available online.

The Sedentary Lives of Moss Animals

I knew from my friend’s lively cry that something big was afoot: “There is some kind of colonial animal living over here!”

She was knowledgeable about outdoor creatures, so I had little reason to doubt her unlikely comment.  I came running over to where she was pointing.

“There, there, at the lip of the spillway—can you see it?”  She was pointing at something twelve feet from where I stood on the concrete abutment above the dam that released water from Lake Dubonet to the Platt River system below.  “No, I can’t see—it’s too dark!

“Just look.  It’s perched on the edge of the spillway.”

My eyes were getting used to the shade cast by the abutment.  “I see it!” I proclaimed, “and I think I know what it is,” I replied with a bit of hesitation in my voice.  “It’s a freshwater sponge!  I haven’t seen one in years.  Let me get a picture of it.”

I worked myself down, as close as I could to where the thing was growing.  It looked like a mass of gelatin, as large as a loaf of bread, without any recognizable appendages, without a head or a tail.  Colonial animals, indeed!  What else could it be?

Image courtesy of the author.

I took a couple of photographs with my camera held down as close as I could get it to the creature.  The flash went off, so dark it was down there.  I include the view in this article along with one taken by someone else, someone with an easier animal to photograph.

When I got home, I immediately began to have doubts about my identification.  Freshwater sponges are not gelatinous, for one thing.  They are rough to the touch, and generally green.  I thought about my Invertebrate Biology course I had taken so many years ago—and I remembered.  I emailed my friend: “It’s not a freshwater sponge.  It’s a bryozoan, a moss animal!” Not having seen the species for nearly forty years, it was easy to see how I could have misidentified it.

Bryozoans are sedentary creatures made up of individuals with scores of tentacles, all of them connected to a horseshoe-shaped structure called a lopophore.  They are not related to corals—which do not have a lopophore—but extract food from the water the same way they do: filtering out living organisms.  This they do by movements of their tentacles and the cilia (moving hairs) upon them.

Fluted Bryozoan in Monterey, California. Image courtesy of Ed Bierman, through Wikimedia Commons:

Like sponges and corals, they encrust various substrates—wood, rock, old tires, even water intakes–scarcely moving during their lives.  The species my friend had found, Pectinatella magnifica, is known to move as a young colony, at the rate of two centimeters per day.  Its possibilities for adventure are clearly limited by its sluggishness.

“Bryozoan” translates from the Greek as “moss animal.”  In both freshwater and salt water, some species form mats somewhat reminiscent of a bank of moss, though they are rarely colored green.  The species I photographed, genus Pectinatella, secretes a gelatinous outer body that looks like an unappetizing jam one might put on bread.  No one would be tempted to do so, however, given its unprepossessing appearance.

However they might offend our mammalian standards for beauty, bryozoans choose attractive ponds and streams to live in: they prefer unpolluted water, water uncontaminated by mud, debris, or pollutants brought in by humans.  Just as lichens point to unpolluted air, bryozoans indicate clean water. 

The life cycle of Bryozoans lacks the drama of sperm from one colony actively seeking out eggs in another.  Generally, sperm cells from one colony fertilize eggs from the same: a larva grows from the fertilized egg, and is eventually released into the water, often as the colony dies at the end of the summer season.

No one brags about the bryozoan he has captured.  No one raves about how good they taste.  No one tells of the sport they had in catching their first bryozoan.  They live uninteresting lives unaffected by the major currents of a world dominated by other organisms.  Does that make them less interesting to those of us who know them?  Not at all.   

Fisheries Heritage Trail forms to link Michigan Historic Fishing Villages

Fisheries Heritage Trail Inaugural Meeting, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

A new group recently met at Fishtown in Leland to initiate the Fisheries Heritage Trail. The trail will link historic fishing villages throughout the Great Lakes. It will provide access to historic archives relating to commercial fishing as well as the sites occupied by shoreline communities where fishers lived.  The effort is sponsored by Sea Grant, Michigan Maritime Museum, the Pokey Huddle Institute and NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and others.       

Fresh Great Lakes fish bought in the market are caught by commercial fishers, sports fishers are not allowed to sell fish they catch by hook and line. Commercial fishing operations still use classic high deck tugs that can protect the crew from the weather all year round. The tug I worked on had a coal stove that really kicked out the heat. Trap net commercial operations use vessels with low decks and generally only fish in good weather.

It was decreed with consent that the sports/commercial fishing divide would be defined by kinds of fish caught as well as fishing methods. Commercial fishers catch coregonids, whitefish, chubs, cisco and herring. These native fish of the genus coregonus live in all parts of Great Lakes waters and throughout colder regions of the globe. Sports fishers catch large predator fish that are raised in hatcheries and have biometric tags inserted in their heads as they are released.

As the 20 year period of the consent decree approaches the end, it is apparent that the fisheries resources pie has changed since 2000. While some species have declined others have increased such as walleye in the Saginaw bay. Many feel it would be appropriate to allow commercial walleye fishing in the Saginaw Bay. Randall Claramunt of the DNR has recently talked about “paradigm shift” due to changing fish populations. 1.

The catch of native whitefish (coegonus cupaliformis) in Lake Michigan and Huron is still substantial, 2.2 million pounds in 2015. The trap nets whitefish are caught in stand on the bottom of the lake in shallow areas and are pulled up and checked for fish. The tugs set gill nets that can stand at depths of hundreds of feet.

Commercial fishing vessel at Leland, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Aquaculture in Michigan is in service of sportsmen. Sportsfishermen are fishing harder with their hooks and lines for the non-native game fish raised in State of Michigan Hatcheries. The State government has a firm hold on aquaculture and an enthusiastic constituency of sportsmen. As the ecosystem changes and the “consent decree” expires it is time to rethink how fisheries in Michigan are managed. With an eye to history, thoughtful decisions can be made with the consent of stake holders. Many who buy fresh Great Lakes fish in the market recognize the efforts of commercial fishers. Efforts to expand aquaculture operations in Great Lakes waters are long over due.

The Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage Trail can provide perspective on how the fisheries resource has changed. The Consent Decree renegotiation is an opportunity to envision a new paradigm. Former commercial fishers and others knowledgeable in fisheries issues support the expansion of commercial fishing and aquaculture in the open waters of the Great Lakes. State governments have the expertise to manage such operations without interfering with sportsmen as they take their boat rides in fine weather.

1. “King salmon reign becomes more precarious on changing Great Lakes”; Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press Published, Oct. 23, 2017

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.

Railroad Tracks: Pathways for Plant Dispersal

Outside Oryana Food Co-op at Lake St. and Tenth, just beyond the old railroad yard, a stand of grass grows far taller than my six-foot frame.  The stalks are sturdy and straight, colored with maroon, gold, and a touch of blue at the nodes where the leaves come out.  They grow in the rubble of a formerly active railroad, amid the cinders, stones, broken glass, and pieces of coal of the roadbed.  Alongside the tallest grasses is a shorter species which looks much like the larger, but reaching only a bit above my knees.  It definitely plays second fiddle to its larger cousin.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Image courtesy of the author, taken in October 2017.

I know these grasses.  The larger is Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and the smaller—appropriately—Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).  Both are native to Michigan, the smaller species quite common along interstate highways and sandy, well-drained fields in locations where farming proved nearly impossible decades ago.  Big Bluestem is harder to find: the most likely place in Northern Michigan to find it is near Lake Michigan among the dunes.

Both grasses are prairie species. As components of that ecosystem, they depend upon environmental disturbance for their survival, that taking the form of occasional drought, fire, and windblown soil.  In Michigan we do not have good examples of prairie ecosystems.  Perhaps the oak openings around Kalamazoo and the sandy, unstable soils near Lake Michigan come the closest, but they lack many prairie species present further west.  Sleeping Bear dunes has areas heavily populated with prairie grasses, especially Big and Little Bluestem.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). Image courtesy of the author, taken in October 2017.

If prairies are the natural habitat of these grasses, then why are they found along railroad tracks?  Two reasons occur to me: first, railroads do away with woody plants growing near the tracks through pruning or herbicides.  With no trees to shade them out, grasses have the advantage.  The second reason has to do with fire.  Before the days of diesel engines, fires along railroad tracks were common as hot cinders escaped the smoke stacks of steam engines.  Fire would spread from the tracks, sometimes starting wildfires that extended for miles.  Of course, lightning causes such fires, too.

Michigan does not have the endless oceans of grass rippling in the wind as the Dakotas or eastern Montana do.  Buffalo did not wander among stalks of Big Bluestem that grew shoulder-high to those animals.  The sky did not spread to the far horizon, creating a sense of both immensity and emptiness as Western writers describe for us.  Instead, here the hills and trees make for a more closed—some would say, friendly environment.  Still, in small places and large expanses all around—by old railroad tracks and in sand dunes—we get a hint of the prairie further west, only we must search hard to find it.  Look along railroad tracks to find Big and Little Bluestem before the snow presses their stalks to the earth.

Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature

Close to the railroad trestle across the Boardman River at Eighth Street, a large patch of ragweed grows tall, some plants reaching five feet high. It covers disturbed ground with a dense tangle of leaves and stems, never gracing the landscape with a hint of color. Not particular to good soil or poor, it grows wherever the soil has been disturbed, only reaching gigantic proportions under the best conditions. Though an annual, it comes up year after year unless attention is paid to its control.

Green ragweed, growing near Boardman River and Eighth Street, Traverse City, September 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Ragweed will eventually go away as other plants move in to squeeze it out, but its retreat is often slow and uneven. Uprooting the plant gets rid of it for a scant year or two, but as long as the ground is bare of other plants, it will come back. The only real solution is to seed an area with something more desirable- grass or shrubs, for example. That, of course, involves a plan, disciplined labor, and money for seed. In the past Traverse City applied a simpler remedy: paying children to eradicate ragweed. While spreading wealth among the youth, it never quite did the job. Ragweed flourishes now as it always has.

With the building of the homes, railroads, farms, docks, and factories that replaced the great pine forests of the Traverse area came the pests that survive and thrive on the leavings of humankind: spilled grain from a mill, garbage left beside a house, a dump sited near residences, the river with its flowing cargo of waste and dead fish, horse manure that nourished clouds of floes. Rat and sparrows, locusts and flies- even unwanted plants like ragweed- arrived in our town and, like their fellow human immigrants, settled down to make decent homes for themselves. Seeing no future in the Old World, Norway rats fled to America, obtaining free transportation aboard boats shipping seed corn and food to the New World. Invited by certain misguided individuals who missed the birds of Europe, house sparrows were set free on the East Coast of the United States in 1852. It did not take them long to find Traverse City for it is noted in a Record-Eagle article of 1923 that a bounty of two cents was offered for every sparrow carcass brought in to the examiners.

Firearm control of animals was not confined to sparrows. Rats brought a richer reward than sparrows to young marksmen: ten cents per rat, the tail being sufficient evidence of a corpse. Of course, a wiser, and less violent approach would have been to make food unavailable to rodents and birds, but that simple idea would require time to take root in people’s consciousness. After all, shooting pests provides a certain satisfaction since success is easily measured by body counts, while eliminating food sources does not carry the same panache. Besides, the hunter’s instinct is never far from the surface in small towns of the American Middle West.

Undeserving of compassion, these hapless creatures were classified as “vermin” and were hated because they spread disease and filth about the city. More than the threat to public health they posed was the appearance of poverty and ugliness. They represented an insult to the civilization of a fine city: Traverse City, Michigan. To affronted townspeople, the only good sparrow was a dead sparrow; the only good rat was a dead rat.

The Record-Eagle joined the battle against vermin in 1924. Fresh from victories over the rat populations of Manistee and Muskegon, one Helen Caldwell became the field general for a local rat extermination campaign. Beneath a picture of Caldwell, the newspaper waxed poetic about the campaign:

Rodents and such were gathering fast,
When through the village street they passed
A youth [Caldwell] whose banner bore that strange device,
“Rat Poison!”

Straightaway unto Bill Hobbs she turned,
And he it was who firstly learned,
The power behind those magic words,
“Rat Poison!”

And he took her to the paper place,
Where the Record-Eagle entered the race
To shout and cry from the top of the page,
“Rat Poison!”

Then to the mayor she hied her way,
And with him also she had her say,
Which was and is and will be, too
“Rat Poison!”

The board of health sat on the case,
And a smile beamed over Doc Holliday’s face,
As he decreed for the city’s pests
“Rat Poison!”

Witherite, Barium carbonate, BaCO3; Hexham, Northumberland, U.K.; Collection of the Institute of Mineralogy, University Tübingen, 2009.

Barium carbonate was the poison of choice. It was to be mixed with meat, cheese, cereals and cake- even fresh fruit like bananas and cantaloupe (apparently, rat insisted on a smorgasbord of delicacies). Care would be taken to keep the poison bait away from pets (and children, one would presume). In case an accident should occur, the sufferer should ingest Rochelle or Epson salts as an emetic.

The mayor of Traverse City, James T. Milliken, issued a proclamation in support of the rat extermination program:

Inasmuch as every person in the city is supporting two rats at a cost of $1.82 each and inasmuch as this expense can be eliminated, it is with considerable enthusiasm that I endorse the rat extermination campaign which is now being waged in Traverse City.

In endorsing this campaign I also designate the dates from July 31 to August 9 as “Rat Killing Week” and urge every citizen, including every boy and every girl, to join this movement and make Traverse City a ratless city.

With such publicity, the campaign could not but succeed. A week into the campaign the Record-Eagle reported, “Traverse City’s rat population has decreased by leaps and bounds almost overnight, the rats in their poison throes, leaping and bounding out into the open air to die by the dozens.” The mayor’s call to the boys and girls had brought in ample evidence of rat slaughter: rat tails by the dozens were turned over to the local Rotary Club and prizes and rewards were distributed to the children. The sales of barium carbonate had gone through the roof at local druggists and there was heavy traffic in rat traps in hardware stores around the area. Everyone agreed that, if the City was not entirely “rat-free,” at lease a dent had been made in the rat population. Miss Caldwell would carve another notch in her belt as she left town.

Rats were not the only pestilence afflicting the City. In some years grasshoppers increased beyond the bounds of human tolerance, their numbers soaring as they fed in scrub land that replaced the pine and hardwood forests that occupied the land in the nineteenth century. Authorities did not mess around in doing them in: Arsenic was the designated poison. To this day, land close to the City is contaminated with arsenic residue, a substance deemed so toxic by the EPA that severe restrictions have been placed upon its use.

Animals seen as predators of game birds and sport fish were dealt with sternly. Crows in particular were targeted as a nuisance since they attached young ruffed grouse whenever opportunity presented itself. Consequently, in one year (1937) 2100 of them were killed by teams of marksmen composed of members of the local Dog and Sportsman Club. Mergansers, (diving ducks) were shot in large numbers on the Bay and inland lakes because of their appetite for fish. Even fish were not immune from human prejudices: it was reported that a half ton of dogfish (bowfin) were speared in Lake Leelanau in 1930. There were called “obnoxious” by the perpetrators, presumably because they were not good to eat and competed with more desirable fish for food.

Tree root destroying underground pipe. Image courtesy of A1 Sewer.

Animals were not alone in suffering punishment for getting in the way of human desires. Poplar trees were condemned within the City limits in the early twenties. Their crime? Their roots readily invaded sewage lines, sometimes causing unsanitary back-ups into people’s basements. Dr. A.G. Holliday, city health officer, insisted on strict enforcement of an existing anti-poplar ordinance after the City was forced to expend 200 to 500 dollars for the clearing of the roots from the sewers, an expense that would not be tolerated. It was noted in the paper that some citizens- in particular certain residents living on Sixth Street- would not suffer gladly this insult to their poplars. It is not known if their trees received a reprieve from the death penalty.

Casual observation about town nowadays reveals a plentiful growth of poplars of several varieties. Perhaps the vicious nature of the plant has cooled- or else city sewer system pipes are impervious to their probing roots. In any case, poplars have gained a small measure of respect- at least from some property owners.

Ragweed was another “planta non grata”. With its abundant pollen, it was known to cause hay fever, a problem back in the twenties as now. Northern Michigan was considered to be haven from the noxious weed. Hay fever sufferers flocked here in summer to find relief from the sneezing and runny nose they experienced in Illinois, Ohio, and Southern Michigan. In 1929 the City quickly went through its ragweed control budget of one hundred dollars in dealing out direct payments to children who would get ten cents for every hundred plants they brought in. Later, in the early fifties, movie tickets were distributed for armloads of ragweed which were carefully weighed to determine the number of tickets earned. On Occassion children who had allowed their plants to dry at home overnight were disappointed at the low weight totals of the wilted plants. It did not take long for them to understand that fresh ragweed weighed more.

The battle agains pests has hardly abated. In recent years Gypsy moths were subjected to airborne application of the bacterial spray Thuricide, that treatment saving the city’s ancient oaks and maples. Skunks invaded one city neighborhood shortly afterwards and began a miniature city of their own. Only a trapping program thwarted their plans for domination.

Invasive plants have marched into town, one species after another. Purple loosestrife was poised to cover every wetland until beetles were brought in to bring it under control. Baby’s breath, an escaped garden dweller, threatened to take over abandoned land especially by the railroad tracks. Autumn olive and buckthorn covered many acres inside and outside the city. Finally, an eight-foot high grass, Phragmites (aka, the common reed), has been recently sentenced to die through applications of topical poison. It cannot be allowed to take root upon the shores of lakes, river, and the Bay or else it will crowd out the natives.

There is a pattern of our responses to Nature’s assaults. At first, we call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and give the battle all we’ve got. After time and expense, we back off, wondering if we cannot co-exist. Finally, we forget there ever was a problem and regard the pest as another somewhat disreputable member of the neighborhood. Maybe that should have been our approach from the beginning: acceptance of the pest’s right to exist, while denying it free rein to raise havoc. Respect within firmly set bounds. For that matter, it’s not a bad plan for humans. After all, we are an invasive species, too.

“Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature,” was originally published in Richard Fidler’s book, Gateways to Grand Traverse Past, recently republished under Mission Point Press in July 2017. Gateways is for sale at Horizon Books, Traverse City, and on Amazon.

Midge Swarms

We have all seen them, but we haven’t given them names: a swarm of tiny insects flying in a crowded formation often looking like a column.  Certainly, it is much taller than wide, its width usually not more than a foot or two at most, its height often taller than we are.  Our fear is that the insects will bite us, or, at the very least, we might inhale them.  Unlike birds and bats, we do not relish them either for flavor or for nourishment.  We steer clear of them and go about our business.

Magnified photograph of midge emerging from chrysalis. Image courtesy of

Midge swarms form in summer and early fall.  The insects comprising them do not bite, though that passivity is often not enough to keep humans from spraying poisons on them.  They transform from aquatic larvae, tiny forms resembling segmented worms, ready to mate upon emerging from their pupal cases, but not ready to eat since they do not possess the required mouthparts.  So it is they do not harm us.

Most members of the swarm are male: they seek to mate with females that pass through the mass of flying insects.  Upon being fertilized, the female will set about to lay eggs in the waters of ponds and ditches.  Several broods are produced during the year with the last overwintering in mud underneath the ice.

“Midge Swarm near Cass Street Bridge,” Richard Fidler, pen and ink drawing.

According to Donald W. Stokes, author of A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, midge swarms are often found close to water, often above prominent features called “swarm markers.”  These can be patches of light or dark on the ground, or high points such as the upthrust branches of a shrub or tree—or even the top of your own head!  A shiny black piece of plastic will attract a certain species, if one wishes to try an experiment.

Swarms may form in the morning, evening, or even mid-day, depending on the species.  Considering that the insects do not live for more than a couple of days, the observer cannot count on a week of entertainment.  New broods, though, will prolong the joy of avid midge watchers.

Stokes notes that, in a wind, the midges face in one direction and move forward to the limit of the swarm marker and back, the effect making it look like the entire swarm is dancing.  The resulting shimmy captures the interest of naturalists everywhere.  Unsurprisingly—given their awareness of nature, the Japanese haiku poets have written about the swarms (which they call “mosquito (or midge)) columns:

Across the mosquito columns
Hangs the floating bridge
Of my dreams.

The mosquito columns,
Big and thick
As of a palace

The Capitol
Is visible through a hole
In the pillar of mosquitoes

(translations courtesy of R. H. Blythe)

The poets often portray the fleeting lives of mosquitoes (midges) as emblematic of the fleeting existence of things we imagine to be great and eternal, things like palaces and the Capitol (Kyoto).  That is what we should take away from our experiences with midge swarms: the beauty and wonder of ephemeral things that live out lives unnoticed by us all.

Sudden Flooding Along the Bay: Are We Due for Another Seiche?

Map of Grand Traverse Bay, courtesy of WikiMiniAtlas.

How many times has it happened?   Along East Bay, usually at night or early morning, the water surges up, rising four feet or more from its normal level, only to subside within minutes.  In the past, roads have been flooded, docks floated away, and debris swept into the water.  Houses and cottages have been flooded and cars damaged by the flooding such that they had to be towed away for repair.  West Bay gets them, too, but East Bay, especially at the south end, from Five Mile road west to the Birchwood area of Traverse City have been especially hard-hit.

The 1950’s experienced a number of these events, not just locally, but throughout all the Great Lakes.  At first, no one knew what to make of them: newspapers called them “Tidal Waves,” often using quotation marks since everyone knew they had nothing to do with the tides.  The only similarity is that the water rose somewhat gradually, and not with an abrupt crash of giant waves on the shore.  In 1952, the Traverse City Record Eagle declared no one knew what caused them, but that observation was soon to change: a surge of water with immense waves swept up on the Chicago shore on June 26, 1954, causing the deaths of ten persons.  That tragedy sparked interest among scientists studying the phenomenon.  They would soon uncover the causes.

First in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Gordon E. Dunn, Meteorologist-in-charge of the Chicago office, realized that, on past occasions, the surges always occurred after the arrival of a pressure increase associated with a rapidly moving storm front coming from the north.  On July 6, 1954, just ten days after the devastating surge described above, conditions looked nearly identical to those of that day.  Based upon his understanding of the event, Dunn issued the first seiche warning. Somewhat to his surprise given his scant knowledge, a moderate seiche did strike Chicago, one that caused little damage, much to the relief of all.

Since those early times, we have learned much more about seiches.  They are associated with fast-moving storm lines, especially those moving faster than 50km/hr.  There must be a significant pressure rise associated with those lines, with a long fetch of water covering the entire width of a body of water—Lake Michigan or Grand Traverse Bay–making for more the most dramatic events.  One factor Dunn did not understand was the most fundamental thing of all: storm surges bounce off shores and send reflected waves outward to interact with those coming in.  It is like a basin of water with a water disturbance that reflects off the sides, sometimes building into surges that are magnified by the coming together of different waves.  Surges and the receding of water can go on for days as waves interact, just as water in a basin takes time to settle if it is disturbed.  All of this happens during seiches.

Second in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

East Bay presents another aspect of seiches.  It has vast shoals—shallow areas—that extend from the south and west shores.  When rising water strikes them, waves grow taller, driving farther inland.  One of the descriptions of a seiche claims that the water rushed 30 to 40 feet inland from its usual position, but only in areas at the base of the Bay.  This “shoaling” effect is known to increase the severity of seiches.

East Bay also presents an obstructed range of open water (a “fetch”) that enables waves free travel down its length.  By contrast, West Bay has a narrowing at Lee’s Point on the west side and Bower’s Harbor on the east, after which it widens at the south end.  Contours of the land also affect the severity of seiches, and East Bay seems especially suited to maximize high water surges.

Third in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

This is not to say West Bay has not experienced them.  On April 1, 1946, a resident of Bay Street in Traverse City reported the water level rose two feet before subsiding.  An older story is told that in March, 1891, the city had been withdrawing water from West Bay for household use by means of an intake pipe that extended two hundred feet from the shore under twenty feet of water.  When the pumps started racing one morning, it was realized that no water was being moved at all.  Upon breaking the ice that covered the intake, it was discovered that the water had receded to the point that the mouth of the pipe wasn’t in the water at all.  Soon after, water levels rose, and residents were able to get water for their morning coffee.  The peculiarity of this event—occurring when the Bay was frozen—sets one to wondering if some factor besides a seiche wasn’t operating.

East Bay experienced three significant seiches in the two years 1952-53.  The May 5, 1952 seiche is interesting because we have access to hour-by-hour data about wind speed and direction.  Hour-by-hour after midnight the wind direction changed: 1:00 AM: out of the East at 7 mph; 2:00 AM: out of the west at 7 mph; 3:00 AM: out of the south at 10 mph: 4:00 AM: out of the west at 8 mph; 5:00 AM: out of the north at 12 mph.  The wind direction stayed out of the north after that time for the rest of the day.   Note the time of day: after midnight and early morning.  For reasons not completely understood, the biggest surges of water tend to happen in early morning up to noon.  Also note that the wind direction jumps from one direction to another, finally ending with a strong wind out of the north.  The effect is to pile up water on one side of the Bay, only to have it rush in from the north.  Given the contours of that body of water, that is exactly what you would expect in order for the biggest surge of water to occur at the southern end.

Fourth in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Residents on the south shore of East Bay notified the sheriff of the flooding shortly after 4:00 AM, a time fairly consistent with the wind change out of the north.  After the first surge, water rose again and again, but never reached the high water mark of the first rush.  That behavior goes along with our present understanding of seiches as disturbances in a closed basin with waves that reinforce each other at times.

When will the next seiche be?  Who can say?  We should beware when a fast-moving storm line moves in from the north associated with rapidly rising air pressure.  The National Weather Service now issues warnings when conditions are favorable for water surges and high waves, and persons living in vulnerable places should take precautions to protect their lives and property.   It has been some time since the last big one and it is easy to become complacent in the absence of memory.  After all, Nature acts whether we are ready or not for what she gives us.

Godzilla vs. Spongilla: A Contrast in Life Styles

A sponge is the antithesis of a super hero.  It stays in place, sifting out plankton (microscopic algae and animals) from the water that passes through its body.  Its body is not of great interest, lacking appendages altogether, not even possessing tentacles that might enwrap evildoers and others that would do it harm.  Its personality is not engaging, either, since it does not have a brain. 

To get its food, it has many small openings that take in its tiny prey, and a few larger ones that expel the water it has cleansed.  The pumping system that carries on the circulation is primitive: cells with tiny whip-like appendages (flagella) line passageways, setting up the current.  There are no robust hearts in sponges.

A simple animal reproduces simply.  In some species of sponge, balls of cells (gemmules) form in mid- to late summer that can break off from the parent animal and grow into a new sponge somewhere else.  This asexual form of reproduction is perhaps the most common means of making new sponges.   However, sperms and eggs can be made inside its body, those fertilizing each other in a display that has nothing to do with affection.  You wonder, without courtship, without males showing off what they’ve got, what is the point of reproduction like that?

Sponges do have a skeleton of sorts, however.  In the ocean, some of them have a soft one made up of spongin, a substance that becomes flexible and absorbent upon being rehydrated.  Those sponges have been used for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere for scrubbing everything from floors to human bodies.  Mostly replaced by plastic substitutes, they are occasionally used today.

Many years ago I took a course in invertebrates at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station at Pellston, Michigan, and was surprised to learn that we have a freshwater sponge that inhabits our lakes: Spongilla lacustris (a few other species can be found here, too).  As I observed it, its body most often was in the form of a greenish blob attached to sticks or pondweed–the green color, I found out, came from algae inhabiting the animal.  It was not at all gooey or gelatinous, but felt rough to the touch and a bit like glassy bits stuck together when dried.  Unlike its ocean brethren with its spongin, it had a skeleton made of crystal-like tiny elements made of silica, the same stuff that comprises most of our sand in Northern Michigan.

At least one animal appreciates Spongilla–but not for its appearance or life habits.  Spongilla fly larvae feed on it with zest, later pupating to become small flies we are certain to ignore among the multitude of other flies that hatch in lakes and ponds.  No life form–not even the sponge–is too humble to escape predators.

Spongilla is very particular about where it lives: it must have the cleanest, purest water around.  For that reason, it is considered to be an indicator of pristine, unpolluted lakes.  Far from being a pestilence, freshwater sponges are a gift.  We should not condemn them for what they are not—gifted superheroes of the animal world.  They are not delicious, not cute, not pretty, but they do constitute a component of our most treasured biological communities, the clear lakes that grace our landscape in Northern Michigan.  Let us rejoice in their presence here.

A Handsome Animal That Does Not Milk Cows: the Milk Snake

Milk snakes do not milk cows, contrary to legend.  They do hang around barns and other structures–sometimes houses.  Someone I know shares her dwelling with occasional milk snake intruders which apparently enjoy living in the crevices of the foundation.  It does little good to let her know that they are only looking for rodents and other small varmints—she does not like them.  To her credit, they have become only an occasional nuisance, and are only evicted from the premises rather than summarily decapitated, a common response of humans.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

I saw one quite recently, three feet of torpid elegance stretched across a bike path near where I live.  Fearing for its life–since it nearly blocked the right-of-way of bicycles–I stamped on the ground to get its attention.  With apparent nonchalance, it moved to one side and then into the tall grasses beside the river, its tongue flicking out every few seconds as snakes do.

Indeed, why do they do that?  Reference books tell me that this is their sense of smell, but that statement is not quite accurate, since the actual organ of smell is inside their mouths.  The tongue only samples the air outside.  Since they don’t bring air directly past their olfactory membranes, then they can only smell whatever comes to them on the wind, a strange mechanism at least from our point of view, since we can sniff.  What smells would they be sensitive to?  Rodents, one might guess, and other milk snakes, females especially–if a male snake is the prime actor.

Milk snakes are harmless, but that does not mean they will not attempt to discourage those who would cause it irritation.  Like many of its relatives, it will coil, hiss, and strike to incite fear in the hearts of its perceived enemies.  It should be forgiven for that behavior, not beheaded.

These creatures are most commonly seen in spring and fall.  They go after their prey after nightfall, seeking out mice with their flicking tongues, ready to wrap themselves around them in an instant, squeezing them so they cannot breathe.  That is what constrictors do.

The triangle on the head of this eastern milk snake is very distinct. Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Milk snakes are given the name Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum, the “triangulum” element referring to a triangle or Y-shaped marking at the top of its head.  In larger snakes dull red bands decorate its body, but smaller ones will have brighter red stripes bordered with black, all set upon a creamy white background.

After your initial surprise at seeing one, you will have to admire this animal for its stunning appearance.  As so many snakes and reptiles are disappearing because of habitat disruption, they are to be treasured all the more.  Let us live in peace with them.

Want more on snakes? Check out these TADL books about snakes

  • Holman, J. Alan, Harding, James H., Hensley, Marvin M., and Dudderar, Glenn R., Michigan Snakes, Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 2006.
  • Holman, J. Alan, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.