Sunday, January 30, 2011

MacCready Revisited

It dawned a beautiful winter day here in southern Michigan.  We just had to go out and explore, so off to the MacCready Reserve we went.

This time, however, we headed north first, along the Red Trail.

Before long, we were out of the woods and headed toward a field.

Skiers were out in great numbers, but we had this section of the trails to ourselves.  The path divided, and we followed it up the hill that skirted the edge of the field.

Here is the 180+ degree view of the field from the top of the hill.

Down the other side we went, and ended up along the property boundary.  The folks on the other side must really like this the summer.

A deer stand?  A child's fort?  Modern art?

 We passed a stand of black walnuts that were conveniently labeled. 

And then we were passed by a pair of skiers.  About twenty minutes later we caught back up to them as they struggled sideways up a rather steep hill.

Not all the openings were fields - this one was a lovely wetland.  As you can see, someone braved the ice and snowshoed across it.

Next to this wetland was a sign that is more and more common these days: an invasive species alert.

Then there was this pipe.  Why was it here?  Back in the Adirondacks, when one encountered such a pipe, it was usually a local source of spring water.

But this didn't look like it had enough room for collecting.  Interesting rock and moss formation(s), though.

Much of this area was historically oak savanna forest.  Remnants remain, but few and far between.

Here's the view of the hillside mentioned in the sign above.

All these signs are along the Blue Trail.  That seems to be the forest ecology trail.  The Red Trail was sans signs, as was the Yellow Trail, which I visited Christmas Day.

Now, I'm pretty familiar with apple trees going rogue, for they were quite common in the Adirondacks.  However, looking behind the above sign, I didn't see any trees that looked like remnant apple trees (see below).

We were out for about an hour and a half, and much of the time Toby spent doing this:

It may have made for some slow going, but it was time spent together, which is always nice.  Tomorrow I'm off to look at another house in the Waterloo area.  I'll take Toby along - perhaps we'll walk along another trial there. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Search for Winter Stoneflies

When one thinks of outdoor winter activities within the snowbelt, wading in streams and rivers in search of aquatic invertebrates isn't usually the first thing that jumps to mind.  Nonetheless, that was on today's agenda: a winter stonefly search in the Grand River Watershed.

This semiannual event is held by the fine folks who work for the Jackson County Conservation District, and is sponsored by several environmental organizations, including the Dahlem Conservancy, which hosted today's workshop.

We started the workshop indoors, receiving a brief overview of the the target insects:  winter stoneflies.  These insects are rather unique, for they emerge in the winter.  Although many of our aquatic invertebrates are active in the winter (as you will see below), these are among the few that actually "emerge" during this chilly season.  There were two families of winter stoneflies:  Capniidae, the "small winter stonefly", and Taeniopterygidae, simply called the "winter stonefly". Of the two, the former is considered much more common, and, just as a point of reference, I wrote about these last winter (see here; you will have to scroll about halfway down the post).

These aquatic insects actually hatch in late winter or early spring.  Things warm up a bit, they migrate a whole meter or so downstream to a rockier location, and enter a period of suspended animation called diapause.  Here they hang out for upwards of six months (summer) and wait for the water to cool off again in the fall.  The cooler temps awaken these sleeping beauties and they begin an aggressive regimen of feeding.  All fall and winter they feast, and come late winter/early spring, they change into adults and emerge (again, see photo previously posted, as noted above).  The cycle begins again.

Paul, the aquatic entomologist in the group, brought in a couple buckets of material from the stream running through Dahlem's property to give us an idea of some of the creatures we might encounter.

 There weren't any stoneflies in the sample, but we did find some terrific critters.

A gigantic damselfly nymph; in all my years of pond and stream studies, 
I've never seen one this large.

Two impressive caddiflies peeking out of their cases:  
one made of sand and tiny stones, the other made of vegetation.

This brilliant yellow caddisfly is case-less; likely a fingernet caddisfly.
They get their name from the fine mesh nets they weave to strain
debris from the water as it rushes past; this is their food.

 We found these greenish caddisflies at our sample site, but I'm including them
here along with the other caddisflies just so you can see all the variation.  
I'm guessing these are common netspinner caddiflies, which have 
branched gills on their sides, fluffy projections from their nether regions, 
are often found outside their protective cases, and 
when captured tend to curl up in a "C".

We had 22 people at the workshop, a record number, and each was assigned to a team.  There were four teams in all, each assigned a different stream or river for sampling.  My team headed south of Jackson to the little village of Liberty.  Our body of water:  the Grand River.

I know, it doesn't really look all that grand, but this is the headwaters region, so the river is more of a stream at this location.

Looking upstream we see the dam that holds back the waters of the mill pond.

Stoneflies in general live in fast-moving, cold water.  The colder the water, the more oxygen it holds.  The cleaner the water, the more stoneflies it holds.  In other words, studies such as this are an easy way to assess water quality:  if stoneflies are present, the water is pretty clean.  Bioindicators - that's what stoneflies are.

Even though winter stoneflies are especially adapted to living in icy cold waters, humans aren't.  Two of our members donned chest waders and headed into the water.  Their job was to capture stoneflies (and any other aquatics that ended up in their nets).

Working their way slowly upstream, they scraped their nets along the bottom of the stream/river, kicking over rocks, ruffling up vegetation. 

All sampled matter was transferred into a bucket...

...then brought to shore and emptied into trays.  Using tweezers, we poked through the sampled debris and snagged any wiggling creatures we found.  These were transferred to... cube trays for easy viewing and identification.

And here it is, the star of the day:  a Taeniopterygidae stonefly. All in all, our group found five of these critters.  We didn't find any of the smaller (and more common) species.  In fact, of all the stoneflies found today (upwards of 50), only one group found a single Capniidae stonefly.

We found two kinds of mayflies.  Here is a sample of the flat-headed mayfly:

And here we have another mayfly, possibly a brushlegged mayfly (the front two legs are quite fluffy at the foot ends).  Brushlegged mayflies also have a distinctive cream-colored striped down their backs.  It obligingly spread all its gills out for me in this photograph.

The curled up creature on the right below is a scud, or side-swimmer.  It looks kind of like a shrimp.  In fact, it is a crustacean.  Interesting factoid:  the word "scud" comes to us from Norway.  The Norwegian word is skudda, which means push.  ( this also the root for scooter?)  And, as one might guess, the name "sideswimmer" refers to the way it swims:  on its side.  A bit of a no-brainer, that.

The one on the left is an isopod.  These are essentially aquatic sowbugs, those multi-legged land crustaceans you find rippling their way through your garden soil. 

Here are a couple more isopods.  There are about 130 species of isopods in North America.  I haven't made a study of them, so there isn't too much I can tell you about them.  On the whole, they are essentially omnivores, mostly consuming small particulate debris, but not disinclined to nibble on other living things should the opportunity present itself.  Apparently some species develop a fondness for watercress, potentially wreaking havoc in commercial watercress beds.

We hauled in two backswimmers.  This one was quite large, and had quite an appetite, as you will see in a moment.  Backswimmers, as their name suggests, swim around on their backs, using their long legs like oars in a rowboat.

Look at all those find hairs on the foot (out behind the insect - completing a stroke)!  They must create a lot of surface area, greatly enhancing the thrust of each stroke.  Also, if you look at its back, which is below (remember, it is swimming on its back - upside-down), you will see it looks like it has a clear bubble attached to it.  That's because it does.   Here's what it says about the air-storing abilities of these insects in A Field Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America:  "They breathe by taking an air store underwater.  The air store is held in two troughs with fringes of hair on the bottom side of the abdomen.  Additional air is carried under the wings and between the head and thorax."

This fellow was rather aggressive and before long it had discovered a damselfly cowering in the bottom of the ice cube cubicle.  It dove down and snagged it - an easy meal.  Using its beak-like mouthparts, it pierced the soft body of its prey and sucked the life out of it.  The empty husk was later discarded.  And yes, if they object to someone handling them, these insects are known to use their beaks to bite the hand that holds them.  I hear it is rather painful.  Just ask the damselfly.  Oh,'s too late for that.

We also caught this small giant water bug.  Giant water bugs can get close to three inches in length, and like the backswimmer above, it is a fearsome predator.  It, too, has a piercing mouthpart that sucks the life out of its victims.  It was placed in the ice cube tray in the same cube as the backswimmer.  It couldn't have been too hungry, for even though the legs of these two predators tangled more than once in the cramped quarters of the cube, it never seemed interested enough to attempt to eat its compatriot.

We spent about 45 minutes sampling, gathering over 15 families of insects, including many blackfly larvae.  It was a pretty good haul.

Our final conclusion:  the water is pretty clean.  In fact, all four teams came back with good results.  Everyone found at least a few stoneflies, and one group had over 30!  Not a bad way to spend a cold winter's day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Making Black Gold

Now here's something you don't get to do every day:  tour a city's composting operation.
I was at a meeting this afternoon with the Jackson Area Outdoor Coalition, and after the meeting, we all convoyed over to the city's composting project, which is operated by one of the Coalition's members.

This operation has been going for only a few short years (four?).  Every fall they collect all the leaves raked from the lawns of Jackson's citizenry.  The city park caretakers also bring in trees that are removed from parks, streets, etc.  All of this is composted at this one operation, creating some really nice compost/mulch.

So, here' the tour.  This pile is the Stump Pile, composed of chopped up stumps that are removed from the ground when trees are taken down.

The next pile is wood chips, the remains of many trees and branches that have been ground up into small bits.  This is good for mulching gardens, but it is also added to the soil mixture they make (more on this in a moment).

Here we have the newest pile of leaves, complete with leaf bags, collected this last fall.

The leaves are piled into long rows, called windrows.  Here they sit and bake.  As they say, "compost happens," and here we see it in action.  All one has to do to make compost is collect organic matter, put it in a pile, and let it cook.  It will naturally heat up  - all a part of the process of decay.

For the unbelievers in the group, Tom brought along a thermometer to read the internal temp of the leaf piles.

Within a minute, on this 19*F day, the thermometer soared to over 120 degrees.  When the piles reach 130-140*F, they are at about the hottest they will get.  At this temp all seeds are killed (no quackgrass to sprout from this compost), and many impurities are also negated.  It is now that the piles need to be turned over.

And here we see it in action.  The piles get turned over once a month (we had good timing).  Look at that steam rising!

Scoop and drop!


Tom grabbed a handful and we all felt it.  It was pleasantly warm, and surprisingly dry!  They like it when there is new snow when they turn the piles, because this adds much-needed moisture to the compost.  This helps the decaying process proceed a bit faster, and helps bake things well.

In about 15 months, a mountain of black gold is produced.  Here in Jackson, this compost is available to the public at a VERY reasonable rate.  If you live in the city, you can get one cubic yard free.  After that, it is $10 per cubic yard.  If you want it delivered, there is also a delivery fee.  If you live outside the city, but within Jackson County, you can still get the compost, but you don't get any free.  Starting some time in April, once things warm up, you can drive up on a Friday and collect compost to take home with you.  Don't wait, though, for by June it is usually all gone!

They also set some aside and mix it with the wood chips and some topsoil, creating really good soil for planting.  This mixture is used to fill in where stumps are removed when trees are taken down.  See - the whole process is recycling at its finest!

Concerned about contaminants?  Tom says they screen the mulch/compost several times, removing plastic, car parts, cans, etc.  He also told us how this compost has been proven to ameliorate contaminated soils.  Consumer's Energy has built a new building in the city on a site that was VERY contaminated with all sorts of bad chemicals (I heard them say something about chromium).  About twelve inches of this compost was added to the site, probably as part of the landscaping and as filler.  Tests now show that many of the contaminants are gone - or at least exist now in greatly reduced concentrations.  The city has even gotten calls complaining about the number of earthworms on the sidewalks after a rain - if there are worms living in those toxic soils now, they must be greatly improved.

So, I know that where ever I finally end up with a home, I will making a call to get a truck load of this black gold delivered to my land so I can work it into my soil for my veg gardens of the future.