Northern Lights Possible Tonight!

Posted on May 10, 2024

Big news: the entirety of Michigan will be in the potential viewing area for the northern lights tonight (5/10) into tomorrow (5/11)!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a rare G4 geomagnetic storm watch due to the high likelihood that 7 coronal mass ejections (CMEs) will reach Earth and create highly elevated geomagnetic activity. While such storms can cause a host of problems with GPS and communications here on Earth, they can also cause the northern lights, AKA the aurora borealis, to become visible!

How can you see the northern lights?
First of all, if it's too cloudy...then you probably won't. But, in the event things that things clear up tonight, or if the lights persist through the weekend—

-Find an area as far away from city lights as possible with an unobstructed vantage point.
-Look north!

The viewline forecast (which shows both the likelihood of aurora, as well as the southern extent of where the aurora might be seen) is being updated frequently as the situation progresses. To keep tabs on the viewline forecast, visit this link.

How can you utilize your solar eclipse glasses while you wait?
The associated source of the expected geomagnetic storm is a large, complex sunspot cluster that is 16 times the diameter of Earth (circled in purple below). If you put on your solar eclipse glasses and look at the sun, you can see it!

Good luck out there, and if you DO happen to catch the aurora, snap a pic and send it our way!

How Do Total Solar Eclipses Affect Wildlife?

Posted on April 4, 2024

We’re willing to bet that you’ve already heard all about the upcoming total solar eclipse taking place next Monday, April 8, 2024. (If not, that’s okay! You can learn all about it here.)

Amidst all the hubbub about acquiring glasses, the path of totality, and the sheer rarity of this event, there’s another conversation going on—a conversation about animals. Will the sudden darkness and shift in temperature have any effect on unsuspecting wildlife?

Knowing that animals can’t tell time, read headlines, or check their phones, we can infer that they won’t be expecting it to get dark in the middle of the day. So, at the very least, they’re going to think it’s nighttime. But, what will they do?

Animal Behavior During Eclipses
Because of how rare total solar eclipses are, there’s not an abundance of reliable data on the topic... but there is some. One report from the year 1560 claims that birds fell from the sky (we’re not so sure about that one). The first comprehensive study on the matter was conducted in 1932 and relied on observations from 500 people. At the time of the eclipse, people reported that squirrels ran into the woods, crickets began chirping, owls started hooting, bees returned to hives, and cattle and sheep headed into barns. The same study showed that zoo animals had little or no response to the eclipse. This conflicted with the results of a more recent zoo animal study conducted during the 2017 total solar eclipse, which included reports of Galapagos tortoises moving more quickly than usual and mating, giraffes galloping, and apes emitting unusual vocalizations.

Also in 2017, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology analyzed 1,350 checklists submitted from the time of maximum eclipse and compiled a report of the most interesting observations, which included the emergence of nocturnal and crepuscular species, as well as reports of huge flocks of birds flying at unusually low altitudes or stopping to roost (maybe that’s what that observation from 1560 was referring to...).

What Can You Expect in Southwest Michigan?
Because we aren't in the path of totality and therefore won’t experience total darkness or notable temperature drops, we don’t expect any standout wildlife behavior on our preserves...but don't let us stop you from going out and observing! Email if you notice anything unusual. We're interested in hearing about it!

If you want to take it one step further, you can take an online training course and submit data to NASA's Soundscapes study, a citizen science project studying how eclipses affect life on Earth during the October 14, 2023 annular solar eclipse and the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse.

Early Butterfly Gets the Sap!

Posted on March 15, 2024

Most often associated with lush springtime or sunny summer, it can be jarring to see a butterfly in March…but it’s not unusual, depending on the species. While it’s customary to think about butterflies spending winter in a cozy chrysalis or migrating down to Mexico, did you know that some butterflies overwinter as adults right here in chilly ol’ Michigan, wings and all? Certain species emerge on warm winter or early spring days and can return to a safe spot if it gets too cold again.

Meet Some of the Year-Round Residents
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is the butterfly you’re most likely to see on a warm winter day in Michigan. These butterflies overwinter in loose bark and tree cavities and can emerge temporarily on sunny winter days. To fly, they need a body temperature of about 65°F, which they can achieve by basking in the sun. Surprisingly, they’re also able to raise their body temperature in a more unique way: through shivering. Mourning Cloaks can raise their body temperature by up to 15-20 degrees within a few minutes just by shivering!

Left image: Ventral, or underside, view of Mourning Cloak. Right image: Dorsal, or top side, view of Mourning Cloak.

The Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) also overwinters as an adult and is one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring. While you’re more likely to see a Mourning Cloak on a sunny winter day, Eastern Commas are also occasionally seen flying around on late winter/early spring days. These butterflies hibernate in log piles, tree hollows, and even in man-made structures. There are two generations of Eastern Commas each year, one in the summer and one in the fall. Only butterflies from the fall brood hibernate through the winter. Eastern Commas are named for the whiteish-silver comma (or C) shaped marking on their hindwing, visible on the underside of their wings (see right image below).

Left image: Dorsal, or top side, view of Eastern Comma. Right image: Ventral, or underside, view of Eastern Comma.

What Do They Eat?
But, don’t butterflies need plants to survive? Not necessarily! Mourning Cloaks can be seen perched upside down on trees sipping sap or dining on rotten fruit. Eastern Commas also feed on sap and rotten fruit, but they also visit mud puddles, carrion, and animal droppings for sustenance. Not the most beautiful mental image, but hey—that’s nature for you!

While there are additional butterfly species that overwinter as adults, the two described above have been spotted in Southwest Michigan this March and reported on iNaturalist. So, if you see them at a preserve near you in the coming days, now you know!

Supermassive Black Mold...Fungus

Posted on February 16, 2024

During our Scat and Tracks hike last Saturday, several small piles of a black, sooty substance on the ground kept grabbing our attention. We eagerly raced to examine each one, filled with hopes and dreams of putting our identification skills to good use. Could it be the scat we were so eager to find? Alas, each time we were left disappointed. “Not poop,” we chorused, dismayed.

Later in the hike, we noticed that the mystery substance was also present at eye level, coating several leaves and branches…more specifically, coating only the leaves and branches of American beech trees. “What is this stuff?” we wondered. We had some ideas, but no one was 100% sure. Based on our collective knowledge, we settled on it being some kind of mold or fungus related to aphids.

Well, after some educated guessing and research, we have our answer...and it's closer to being scat than we realized at the time!

Drumroll, please…
The mystery substance is Scorias spongiosa, a type of sooty mold fungus known as a “honeydew eater.” Sound appetizing? In this case, “honeydew” refers to aphid honeydew, the sugary, liquid waste (sort-of-scat!) aphids secrete as they feed on plant sap. Not so appetizing after all.

As we observed during the hike, S. spongiosa grows exclusively on American beech trees. It feeds on honeydew from one particular type of aphid: the beech blight aphid. Even if you’re not a bug buff, you might be familiar with beech blight aphids, nicknamed “boogie-woogie bugs” because of their unique appearance and tell-tale behavior.

As shown above, these aphids look like tiny little cotton balls and form huge colonies. They show up in droves around September, and you’ll know you’ve found them if you notice a beech tree with branches and leaves covered in what looks like fluff or even snow. They’re often called boogie-woogie bugs because when disturbed, they lift up their tiny abdomens in unison and thrash around in an attempt to ward off predators. (It’s not very threatening if you ask us. Take a look for yourself.)

While S. spongiosa is not the only kind of sooty mold fungus, it's unique in its size and notable appearance—in some cases, it can form thick masses as large as footballs. The reason for its dense, large form is directly related to those beech blight aphids and their behavior. Because the aphids form those colonies, the honeydew they leave behind coats broad swatches of the beech trees, causing the fungus to mimic the appearance of the aphids that came before it.

Isn’t that an awesome, full-circle moment!? If only everything in nature was so clearly connected and easy to remember…*sigh*

So, is it "bad"?
S. spongiosa has a somewhat shocking appearance, so it’s reasonable to wonder if its dense coverage harms beech trees. Luckily, sooty molds don’t penetrate leaves, and they are not parasitic. They can block photosynthesis in some severe cases, but they’re not known to cause any widespread damage and are not a reason to sound any alarms. Go forth and observe this funky fungus in peace!

Field Notes Friday: 2/9/24

Posted on February 9, 2024

Land stewardship doesn’t stop in the winter! So, what’s the crew been up to?

Since late November, our stewardship team has been working with volunteers, the Pokagon Band, and the SX x SW Corner CISMA to control a total of seven highly dense acres of invasives at Nokmes Creek Preserve, one of our limited-access properties in New Buffalo. This week, our crew finished up the work at Nokmes Creek with a good ol' fashioned brush pile burn.

Left to right: before, during, and after burning the brush piles.

That’s right, those heaping brush piles shown above are composed entirely of invasives such as the infamous multiflora rose, bush honeysuckle, buckthorn, and more. Now, the crew has moved on to tackling another big batch of invasives at Castle Keep Preserve. They've only been out to Castle Keep a couple of times, but they've already controlled 8 acres. While the invasives present at Castle Keep are much larger, they’re far less dense, so we’re happy to report that things are moving more quickly over there!

Left image- Alex, COL's Stewardship Field Supervisor, wielding the brush cutter. Right image- Applying herbicide to a fresh-cut stump. You can see why we wear gloves!

All of this work was made possible by the Sustain Our Great Lakes (SOGL) grant, which COL and two of our partners, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, received from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation back in October 2022. The purpose of the grant is to fund work aimed at reducing the spread of invasive plant species and improving degraded plant and wildlife habitat throughout the Galien River watershed. Stay tuned for more updates!