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Bug O' the Month Club: Ticks

Posted on May 29, 2020

Wow! It’s finally been feeling like summer this past week. It seems like we’ve been waiting for warm, sunny days for a long, long time. But as with almost all good things, there are downsides. Here in Michigan, a big one that comes along with summertime is bugs. Oh, so many buuuuuugggggs. So let’s talk about them… what they do, where and when they can be found, and how to protect yourself and/or your garden from them. We’ll pick a different bug every few weeks to discuss. This week, it’s Tick Time!

Due to the unseasonably mild and wet winter, experts predicted that we would have a bad tick season this year. Of particular concern is the black-legged (deer) tick, which has seen a population increase in western Michigan over the last several years. Unfortunately, the deer tick is the type that carries Lyme Disease.

There are five different kinds of ticks found in Michigan. Here’s a good resource from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to help identify them. As you can see, the tick you’ll most want to avoid latching onto you, the black-legged tick, is also the smallest… smaller than a sesame seed. For an idea of just how small these guys can be, check out this horrifying 2018 tweet from the CDC. Lemon poppyseed muffin, anyone?

So what should we do to protect ourselves? Use bug repellent that contains at least 20% DEET on any exposed skin and around your pant legs when you go outside. Make sure your pets have been treated with the appropriate flea and tick preventative as well. There is also a Lyme vaccine available for dogs that you can discuss with your veterinarian… but this should not be considered a replacement for preventative applications, just an additional layer of protection.

Though tick habitat is generally in brushy and wooded areas, you’ll find them in your backyard too. If you have been out in an area where you think there are ticks, do a thorough check of yourself, your kids and your pets when you come inside. The sooner the better, so you can get them while they are still crawling around and not yet attached. Ticks will ride along on clothing and gear too. Toss your clothes in the dryer on high heat for an hour to ensure you've killed them. If you do find one that has attached, remove it with a pair of tweezers, grasping it near the head and GENTLY pulling it off. Finally, if you notice signs of Lyme Disease, which include flu-like symptoms and the tell-tale “bulls-eye” rash at the bite site, see your doctor right away.

All this said, ticks should not keep you from getting outside and hiking all the lovely trails found in the area! Just be sure you are taking the appropriate precautions.

The Early Birds

Posted on May 21, 2020

(photo credit: Kimberly Ramsey)

We have noticed a dramatic uptick in posts on social media with photos of migratory songbirds that everyone is seeing on their walks. As people seem to be getting out into nature more often these days, they are having more opportunities to see these brightly colored birds as they transit through the area heading north.

This got us thinking about how human encroachment on our environment affects bird migration. As we build out subdivisions and shopping centers and the like, we are shrinking songbird habitat. Some birds have stopped migrating altogether, as homeowners plant ornamental bushes or put up bird feeders that supply food during the winter. We know we have been seeing bluebirds throughout the winter in recent years. After all, it’s not the cold that prompts birds to migrate, it’s a reliable food source. Why make that grueling trip if you don’t have to?

And the trip itself is fraught with danger imposed by man-made obstacles. Most songbirds like to travel at night to take advantage of cooler, calmer air and to avoid raptors, but they also navigate using the stars. Light pollution in cities makes this challenging and can throw them off course. Collisions with the windows in tall buildings are also a big problem.

And of course, there’s climate change. A recent scientific study conducted by Colorado State University, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Massachusetts found that birds are returning to their nesting grounds earlier in the spring than they were 20 years ago due to climate change. Why? As the temperature warms at their nesting sites, the timing of peak availability of food they need (insects, seeds, ripe berries) changes too. If the birds mess up the timing, they are in trouble.

The good news about this is that the birds seem to be adapting quickly to the realities of a warmer climate—and we mean really quickly! They use instinct to tell them when to head north, and that instinct doesn’t allow for rapid deviations like climate change. They learn this the hard way—by arriving too late. Keep in mind, a bird hanging out in Central America has no clue what the weather is doing here in Michigan in May. But if it arrives here in May, and the peak availability of the bugs they eat was in April, that puts them in jeopardy (also, more bugs. Great.). The birds whose instincts got them here earlier survive and reproduce. The ones who came later, don’t. In the scheme of evolution, 20 years is an absurdly short amount of time for an adaptation like this to occur.

But are they adapting quickly enough? Perhaps not. A staggering report released by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology last year reported that 2.9 billion birds have disappeared from North America over the last 50 years. That’s one in four! Habitat loss and climate change are among the biggest reasons for this alarming decline.

But there are actions we can take to help!  Cornell offers seven simple things you can do for birds here.

The Mighty Morel

Posted on May 14, 2020

We don’t know about you, but we’re tripping on 'shrooms. By which we mean we have stumbled over a few patches of morel mushrooms while walking in the woods recently. Wait, what did you think we meant??

Yes, this is the time you can find morels, the coveted edible mushroom that pops up on the forest floor for a short time in the spring, usually mid-May. You can easily identify a morel by its conical shape and honeycombed network of pits and ridges. Look carefully, and you can see that the bottom of the cap is attached to the bottom part of the stem. If you cut it in half, you will see that it's hollow. 
Here's where we warn you about the False Morel. These guys look pretty similar to real morels, but they are mildly toxic. If you eat one, your stomach may protest… in fact, these false morels produce a chemical that is used in rocket propellant, which, you know, doesn’t sound too great to us. But fear not, there are a few distinctive traits that make these false morels pretty easy to distinguish. First, the caps attach at the top of the stem, with the bottom of the cap hanging over, like an umbrella. Because of this, if you pull it gently, the cap will pop right off, as opposed to a true morel, whose cap is more firmly anchored. Also, the cap isn’t as upright, nor as pitted and honeycomb-like. It’s a little more squished and brainy-looking. Finally, if you cut it in half, it is not hollow. You can find some good photos of both here. If you're not sure what you have, leave it in the woods-- the mantra is, "when in doubt, throw it out!"
Morels like forested areas with sandy soil, where they can often be found around oak, elm, ash and apple trees; particularly if the trees are dead. They are also likely to be found in areas where a large fire took place the year before. The Michigan DNR even has a map of where wildfires or prescribed burns took place last year to help morel hunters find good spots to look for them.
When you find a morel, cut or snap it at the stem, don't pull it out of the ground, otherwise it won't come back next year. Carry your harvest in a mesh bag, so the spores will fall out on the ground and reproduce. When you get them home, you should soak them in salted water, so any bugs and other critters hiding in the nooks and crannies come out. Drain them well, and store them in a brown paper bag for no more than a couple of days, or freeze them. And then eat them! Here's a pretty decadent recipe for pasta with a morel cream sauce. They are also pretty amazing in scrambled eggs or in a frittata.
So get out and find some morels this weekend! If you find any, take a picture, post it on Facebook or Instagram, and tag us (@ChikamingOpenLands or #chikamingopenlands). We’d also love to hear how you like to prepare them. Happy hunting! 

Ramp-ing up for Spring!

Posted on April 17, 2020

While it looks like a winter wonderland outside our window this morning, we're here to tell you that it is indeed spring. No really. *Sigh*.

So what's happenin' this week? Ramps!

Ramps, or wild leeks, are often the very first hints of green you'll see popping up on the forest floor in the spring. They grow in clusters, and the leaves resemble that of lily of the valley, with reddish stems. You'll find them in wooded areas with well-drained soil, and they particularly like to grow on north-facing slopes. Ramps will grow from the first thaw of the spring until the tree canopy leafs out. When the ramp's leaves begin to yellow, the season is nearing its end.

Fun fact: ramps are what gives Chicago its name! The Native Americans that originally lived in what is now the Chicago region called ramps chicagoua.

Yes, they are edible... and yes, they are wonderfully delicious. Here's where we have to break in with the following caution: PLEASE do not forage for ramps (or anything else) in designated natural areas. It is never OK to remove any plants from these areas, unless you are doing so with the permission and under the supervision of the entity that owns and manages the area. Ok, now that THAT'S out of the way... ramps are members of the onion family, and they have a delightful flavor that's a mix of mild onion and garlic. Like scallions, both the bulbs and greens can be used in cooking.

Ramps propagate in two ways: the female plants develop a pink flower at the end of the season that disburses seeds; and bulb division underground--this is why they are often found clustered together. 

Unfortunately, the (well-deserved!) popularity of ramps mean they are in danger of being over-harvested. If you are going to forage, on your own property, or elsewhere with permission, it's very important to do so sustainably. Because of its very short growing season, and the way ramps propagate, if you take an entire cluster, roots and all, it will take a very long time for them to regenerate, if they are able to at all. So please be sure to only take one or two bulbs from a cluster, leaving the rest to divide and regrow the following year. Better yet, take a very sharp knife, and cut the ramp about halfway down the bulb at an angle, leaving a part of the bulb and roots in the soil (be sure your knife is very sharp though... if it's not, you'll do too much damage to the bulb for it to grow back next year). 

Here's a great video showing how to cut ramps responsibly. 

So, tomorrow, when the weather is more spring-like and this snow melts off, take a walk in the woods and see if you can spot some ramps. While you're at it, grab the kids and do our nature scavenger hunt! Ramps are on the list right now!

The Songs of Spring: Froggie Edition

Posted on April 10, 2020

For us, one of the most prevalent harbingers of spring is not the first robin sighting. It's this sound. At this time of year, you hear it emanating from every pond, creek, wetland, or plain old puddle you happen to be near. It's the sound of Spring Peepers, the teeny tiny frogs with the big, BIG voices.

What you are actually hearing are the male peepers, calling out to females to find a mate. And while they can be really loud (up to 104 decibels when calling in a group... which is comparable to a chainsaw!!), they are also really small- only about an inch long. This, and the fact that they are mostly active at night, makes them pretty difficult to spot. If you do see one, you can identify it by its brownish color and telltale "X" marking on its back.

There's a great article that methodically analyzed the Peepers' call, and determined that they consistently hit the same note... about 3,000 hz, which is equivalent to the the highest G on a piano. They make their distinctive sound by closing their mouths and nostrils, and forcing air from their lungs into their vocal sac, which is the bubble-like structure on their throats. It's the air rushing past the vocal chords and into the vocal sac, which acts as a resonator, that makes that seductive noise. Their call rate ranges from about 20-90 "peeps" per minute... and the faster the call, the better. Why? Because it takes a lot of energy to make all that noise, and a male that can chirp faster is advertising fitness and stamina to potential mates. 

Another fun fact? Spring Peepers have an amazing tolerance to cold. No, we mean REALLY amazing. Peepers spend the winter hibernating in leaf debris and dead logs. When the temperature drops below freezing, the frogs freeze too... mostly. They produce a sort of "antifreeze" that prevents cell damage even though most of their bodies are frozen and their hearts have stopped beating. When things warm up again, they defrost and wake up. Pretty cool! Except they can't do this for too long... they can typically only survive in their frozen state for a couple of days to a week. So why not overwinter by burying themselves in mud where it's warmer like other frog species? Because then they can emerge earlier in the spring and get to their breeding grounds before potential predators have gotten their bearings.

So now that you have the 411 on Spring Peepers, can you find some? They are on the list for our #OutdoorDetective nature scavenger hunt. Check it out here!