2014-08-30 / Columnists

Nature Notes

By Patricia Martin

This column is one that’s a bit of this and that. I like to call it “sightings.” These are things that people have seen and told me about, or that I have seen myself in the past couple of weeks.

The Indian pipes are finally up. The first reported sighting was Wednesday, August 13, along Tranquil Bluff and extending north of Soldier’s Garden Trail. I saw them the next day, and they were barely out of the ground. I haven’t found them in some of the spots where they usually are, but the one on Tranquil Bluff is a good-sized clump. We usually look for them to pop up out of the ground around the first of August, so, as with many things, they are late this year. For those not familiar with them, Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a parasitic plant. In summer or early fall, they can be seen poking their white stems out on the damp, dark earth. The stem is white with maybe a slight cast of pink, is smooth or waxy in appearance, and less than 10 inches tall. At the end of the stem is a single, nodding, tubular flower that is the same color as the stem. The leaves, which have no chlorophyll, are rudimentary and are also the same whitish color. As they age, they turn black/brown. The name “Indian pipe” is used because as the flower unfurls, it resembles the old clay or stone pipes that the early people of the area used. Indian pipe is usually found in moist woodlands and swampy areas, and they are a protected species.

Pinedrops Wildflower (Photograph by Clark Bloswick) Pinedrops Wildflower (Photograph by Clark Bloswick) The next sighting was that the pinedrops are up. Pinedrops, or giant’s bird nest (Pterospora andromedea), is another of our parasitic plants in the Indian pipe family that pop out of the ground in the summer. They are considered rare, but found in groups locally in Michigan. As their name implies, they are usually considered parasites on the roots of pine trees, but may also be associated with hemlock, spruce, fir, juniper, and white cedar, and even occasionally aspen or birch. Pinedrops are usually found in dry or rocky coniferous woods. Every time I’ve seen them on Mackinac Island, they are with the Eastern white pine. Pinedrops stand about one to four feet tall. They produce small, white or red flask-shaped flowers, hence the “andromedea” part of the name, that grow in a long raceme along a stout reddish/ purple stem which has scales at the base and is covered with sticky hairs. It is thought to be a parasite, through the hyphae of a fungus connecting it with a pine or other conifer, so it may be something of a symbiotic relationship. It is interesting that pinedrops do not necessarily appear every year, and sometimes not in the same place. While riding my horse Saturday, August 23, I noted a large colony of them along North Bike Trail, not too far from Garrison Road.

Mink on Mackinac Island (Photograph by Betty Murcko) Mink on Mackinac Island (Photograph by Betty Murcko) Another parasitic plant that has not been in its usual abundance this summer is bear corn, or squawroot (Conopholis americana). This plant pops out of the ground covered with overlapping brown scales resembling a pinecone. The flowers are yellowish and grow between the scales. The yellow seeds that develop sort of make it look like corn. They are considered to be parasitic on the roots of oak trees. These plants appear in late spring or early summer, and there is usually a large colony along Fort Holmes Road. There are a few that grew in the area this year, but most of what I found were dark brown remnants from last year and a few of this year’s. This is an area where, in the past, I’ve found Indian pipe.

Another sighting occurred a week or two ago, when someone said that he had just seen a ferret cross Main Street, crossing to the yacht docks. I asked if it was dark brown or almost black in color, and I told him I was pretty sure that it was a mink (Mustela vison), not a ferret. Both of these are in the weasel family, but the mink is native to Mackinac Island. The ferret is a domesticated European polecat, which comes in various colors and, in our country, are usually pets. Mink, on the other hand, are generally dark brown except for a whitish patch on the chin, throat, and/or belly. The fur of the mink is soft, sleek, and thick, and its toes are partly webbed. These webbed feet indicate the mink’s love of the water, as it is a semiaquatic animal. Minks are usually between 19 and 27 inches long, including six or more inches of tail. They are similar in size and shape to an American marten, but have smaller ears, feet, less bushy tail, and a less defined throat patch. Mink usually stay in sight of open water, where they spend much of the evening, night, and dawn hunting prey. They can cruise underwater up to 100 feet and dive to depths of 15 feet. In the summer they love crayfish, but they also eat small mammals and frogs, as well as fish, ducks, and other fowl. In the winter they eat a lot of muskrat. It is not unusual to see a mink on Mackinac Island taking a shortcut to the harbor by sliding down storm drains.

The last sighting is a happy one, I think. There are brown bats out and flying around. It took a long time for them to appear in any kind of numbers and I, for one, was happy to see them. Normally, we see an abundance of the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), particularly in late July and early August and through the rest of the summer. They were late this summer, as were many things, and they are fewer in number than usual, but they are here and have been commonly seen for the last couple of weeks. Last winter, it was not uncommon to see them out flying in the daylight hunting for flying insects (mosquitoes) that, of course, were nowhere around. Many bats starved to death last winter in part because of the long, cold winter and perhaps owing to White Nose Syndrome that has been found in little brown bats in Mackinac County and other places in Michigan (see my column published in the May 17 to May 23, 2014 issue of the Mackinac Island Town Crier). I was relieved to see any bats at all this summer.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and she said that she was once asked why she walked in the woods almost every day. Her response was that she saw something different every time she went out in the forest. Nothing is constant, and in nature it’s always changing. There is always something new and different to see.

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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