Dune Ecology

June 23, 2018


 

Kitchel Lindquist Hartger Dunes near Grand Haven Michigan and in Ferrysburg, Michigan

The high wooded dunes rise above the Grand River, as they have for several thousand years, a part of the landscape both residents and tourists in the Tri-Cities area enjoy.    For a closer look, people can follow a self-guided nature trail through the dunes.  On Earth Day, the community pitches in and picks up debris blown into the dunes by the winter winds.  It’s a favorite place for people whether they simply look at it as a familiar part of the landscape, or use it for walking or cross country skiing in the winter for it abounds in wildlife, grasses, flowers, and trees. It’s a good place to study the lessons of ecology.

These Dunes, near the shore of Lake Michigan and on the north bank of the Grand River are a gift from the river and the west wind; water and wind currents carried sand deposited by Ice Age Glaciers 4,000 years ago.  It is a perfect place to study how a dune land changes over decades, centuries, millennia.  It is a good place to observe dynamic changes from  season to season, and even from hour to hour.     Ecologists say dunes are dynamic because they change rapidly.

First to develop the discipline of ecology, Henry Chandler Cowles published his work in l899. His scientific studies of the sand dunes along Lake Michigan in Indiana and Michigan pointed out the relationships between the shifting sands of the dunes and the changing plant communities that survive under harsh conditions.  The scientific observations Cowles made in the Indiana and Michigan sand dunes made him the father of ecology.  He saw that plants and animals change more rapidly in the dunes than in other places, therefore the dunes  made a perfect outdoor laboratory. Cowles’ observations on one group of plants replacing another is called succession.  Each stage in dune succession depends upon an earlier stage.  The first plants to grow were perhaps nourished by a dead fish that washed ashore. Insects such as the springtail and bacteria and molds broke the fish down into nutrients the plants could use. After their root systems stabilized the sand, and helped build the dune, other plants were able to establish themselves nourished by nutrients in a layer of topsoil formed by decaying matter.

Here is how the dune ecosystem changes with time:

0-20 years Beach grasses

20-50 years Cottonwood, beach grasses, cherry, willow, herbs

50-l00 years Increasing variety of shrubs, trees, and herbs, Jack pine may dominate

l00-years Black oak may be among the first forest dominants

Oak and hickory_l00-l,000 years  Beech and maple climax forest (extension_bulletin E-l529 Sea Grant)

Marram grass and sand reed grass are not discouraged by the harsh environment of a sand dune: hot, desert like conditions in the summer, strong winds, and cold arctic conditions in the winter.  Dune plants are adapted to extreme heat, cold, and a lack of moisture. The marram grass and the sand reed grass hold the fort on the fore dune by binding the sand with their huge, hair like root systems that may extend down to the water table for a hundred feet. Their stems grow upward even when covered by sand repeatedly.    On these dunes, 52 acres, there is a surprising diversity of life which makes its dune scape an ever changing panorama: plants especially adapted to the dune bloom, each in their season: A self-guided nature trail with  numbered stations shows the succession of plants in the dunes along the footpath are: horsetails, interdunal ponds or pannes with rushes, sedges and various insects and amphibians. A delicate looking yet hardy plant bearberry or kinnikinick was used by the Native Americans as tobacco, and there are junipers of two types, an endangered species: Pitcher’s thistle, pines, dune grasses, poison ivy, sand cherry, and various types of hardwoods such as red oak.  On top of the highest dune are beech and maple. There are also witchhazel trees that bloom in October and sassafras that turn brilliant colors of red and orange in autumn. Some trees are entwined with bittersweet with orange fruit birds feed upon.    Dune forests can grow up on dunes that have been pioneered by grasses and shrubs which stabilize the sand and over the years  help to build a layer of topsoil that can support tall trees.  In the spring, wildflowers such as trillium grow in profusion on south slopes of forested dunes where they can absorb more sunlight. In the open sunny areas of the dune, the yellow hairy puccoon flourishes: its gray green color and fuzzy leaves help it to reflect light and retain water.

Migrating birds rest in the high tree branches while permanent residents such as the pileated woodpecker and the horned owl go about earning their livings in their particular niches.  Whitetail deer browse on vegetation and red fox feeds upon everything from berries and insects to frogs and small mammals such as the white-footed mouse.  With the climax forest, the dunes have produced a diverse community of plants and animals that are an important part of the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. It may have taken a_thousand years between the time the first grasses colonized the sand and the tall trees found enough nutrients for theirseeds to grow.  These dunes are not replaceable. They are of more value to the whole ecosystem as dunes rather than as industrial sand or real estate. They protect inland areas from wind damage since wind blowing off the lake will glance off of a tall dune and rise up into the air.  They also protect inland areas from flooding, but perhaps their most appreciated value is their beauty.  Dune plants may be able to live through harsh summer and winter weather but, they cannot stand up to off the road vehicles or heavy foot traffic.  Building houses on dunes may also cause wind erosion when the plants stabilizing the dunes are removed. This is called a blowout and it forms a saddle shaped or U shaped depression in a stable sand dune.  In the past, many Lake Michigan dunes were trucked away load by load since their fine sand has industrial uses.

In order to protect Michigan’s coastal sand dunes, the state government passed a law in l989 that will prevent harmful development and protect the dunes we still have left. Governor Blanchard signed the bill into law at Kitchel Lindquist Hartger Dunes. Henry Chandler Cowles would have been proud.

In the deep valleys between sand dunes, wetlands with the same sort of living things found in ponds, may appear and then disappear when the weather becomes dry. Before the water disappears, tadpoles may change into frogs and toads. Salamanders may make their transformation from a water to a land animal.    With the climax forest, the dunes have produced a diverse community of plants and animals that are an important part of the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. It may have taken a thousand years between the time the first grasses colonized the sand and the tall trees found enough nutrients for their seeds to grow.  These dunes are not replaceable. They are of more value to the whole ecosystem as dunes rather than as industrial sand or real estate. They protect inland areas from wind damage since wind blowing off the lake will glance off of a tall dune and rise up into the air.  They also protect inland areas from flooding.  In the winter, people_cross country ski through scenic dune trails; in springtime, people come to admire the wildflowers and listen to the music of migrating birds; in the summer, people enjoy strolling through the cool forests and playing on the beaches. In autumn, the foliage changes to brilliant colors and dry leaves rustle underfoot.  Chipmunks scamper over fallen logs, their cheeks stuffed with beechnuts.     Hikers may be alarmed by a snake that rises in a pretty good imitation of a cobra, puffing out its hood to make itself seem fearsome although it is a perfectly harmless snake, and part of the dune ecosystem.  It is the eastern hognose snake (sometimes called the puff adder) with its shovel like nose the snake uses to burrow into the sand in search of it favorite food: toads. In fact, toads are the only food the puff adder will eat. There are also a few Mississauga rattlesnakes in the dunes , so if you take a hike, it’s a good idea to stay on the marked trails and keep your eyes open. There is a lot to see and enjoy.

Great Horned Owl

horned owl

wild flowers

wild flowers

Marram grass

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Rachel Carson  click the link to learn how Rachel Carson changed the world.  She inspired my husband and I to become activists after reading her book Silent Spring.  DDT was banned in Grand Haven, MI and then in Michigan after we formed the Michigan Pesticides Council.

I wrote The Dynamic Great Lakes to show that we really can correct mistakes made in the past.  The return of eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys to the Great Lakes and the U.S.A. proves it.

 

DGLmap of Great Lakes

Outdoor Learning

March 29, 2017


Hands On Outdoor Learning

I’m told that children learn through play.  From what I have experienced, I believe that everyone can learn through play. Our family has been playing in, on and around the Great Lakes most of our lives. We have learned a lot while we swam, boated, fished and beach combed.  The lakes engaged all our senses: the splash of cold water, the sound of the waves, the silence of fog, hot sand underfoot and the way it sings when you drag your toes across it, the ever changing colors and rhythms of waves, the times fish bite the best.   The outdoors have many lessons to teach if we pay attention.

Family vacations took us to all of the Great Lakes; the majesty of Niagara Falls; to the rocky shores of Lake Superior where we hunted for agates; to many embayments and open waters of the lakes to fish.  My husband  Norm, has caught nearly every kind of fish in the lakes: walleye from Lake Erie and the embayments of the upper Great Lakes, deep water fish such as lake trout and burbot, and the annual runs of white fish and perch  Pacific salmon that were planted to control alewives.

We have all learned so much from our outdoor adventures;  changing colors, their beaches of stone or sand, waterfalls, fishes and birds, wetlands , and dunes with their succession of plants.  In our play around the Great Lakes, we always learn something new.

With all of this hands-on experience I wrote a non-fiction book, The Dynamic Great Lakes, a non-fiction primer.  I had wanted a book like this to read, but I never found one so I decided to write a book with information that people could use to make sound decisions about the Great Lakes.

I am also the published author of three poetry books: The Wilderness Within and Sophia’s Lost and Found: Poems of Above and Below and Between Sweetwater and Sand. The last book will be released July 30, 2013( These poems are drawn directly from observations of nature.

At Grand Valley State University, I developed writing classes based upon environmental studies. This gave students important topics to work with. I did not want papers recycled from high school.  I assigned books such as The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon and Thoreau.  We discussed the topics and writing techniques used by these authors.

I asked my students to go outdoors and use observation and to use the five senses. They kept journals based on what they saw and even how they felt about what they saw.   I brought things from nature such as feathers and plants indoors for students to hold in their hands and then describe in concrete detail. They played with the downy feathers, blowing on them and closely observing them.

I asked them to use metaphor and to use as many of the five senses as they could in their descriptions.  Student writing becomes grounded in reality when using these sorts of exercises.

Our lives become grounded when playing outdoors.???????????????

Click the link for reviews of The Dynamic Great Lakes

https://www.amazon.com/Dynamic-Great-Lakes-Barbara-Spring/dp/1588517314/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492203420&sr=1-1&keywords=the+dynamic+great+lakes


moose_633_600x450

 

Living Waters

The north woods ring—the waters gather dripping from the tops of pines, running, running, running over ancient rocks.  The veerys trill up and down the scales, the warblers chime their notes through still bare twigs and the water runs, it runs down to Lake Superior swirling downstream, plunging over waterfalls just freed from ice curtains.  Curious deer come to drink from the pool below lifting their heads, standing motionless to sense the air.  Is it bear?  Wolf? Lynx?

Sun dapples down through bare forest trees—sun streams, the ground steams, wet leaves tilt insisting on light, thrust new spikes.  Water flows through mobile root hairs, roots, stems, vaporizes into air.

Wild geese weave the wind, skid along black marsh water among tangles of cat tail.  Further downstream waves curl onto a rock shore polishing stones to oval and the small stones roll chinking and chunking.  They assume their flat round shapes over years of grinding, finding their ease in the wave rhythms, rolling rolling, rolling.  White caps bubble foam and the jade water is a dancing goddess in the middle distance between shore and horizon.

Children arrive to pick up fossils of ancient coral and to find stones to skip on a quiet day.  They chase sea gulls and try to become airborne by leaping and spreading their arms.  Cormorants and sooty terns rise and cleave the air.  The red cheeked kids leap in the early spring breezes, their knuckles chapped.  What do they care?

The bones of whales and sailors roll in the currents—some finding their way out to sea, some becoming, becoming, becoming a diatom’s shining, becoming the bones of an emerald shiner, becoming limestone shale in the loving exchange between the living and the living.  The islands of Lake Superior bear greenstones and jewel like snakes.  Sturgeon and trout spawn leaving pearls and coral in the crevices of rocks.  A moose stands chin deep in and island lake.  The islands of Lake Superior are quiet, remote and cold,  littered with bones.

Curled underground, water drawn up through squeaky pumps splashes into enamel buckets—water clear and cold and tasting of iron.  The iron flows through the veins of the moose and in the red cheeked children.

Loons quiver their greetings and as twilight falls, bullfrogs groan their love songs—they bellow all night long.  I lay awake listening to the water lapping the night and its creatures.

 

–Barbara Spring

Salmon Time in Lake Michigan

September 8, 2016


Brooks' big catch

Brooks’ big catch

Read about Great Lakes fishing in The Dynamic Great Lakes by Barbara Spring available on Amazon.com, bn.com and many other bookstores.dynamicgreatlakes-independent_fullcover-copy


Upper and Lower Great Lakes podcast  Please click the link to hear my podcast about the Great Lakes in which I read some passages from The Dynamic Great Lakes.DynamicGreatLakes-Independent_FullCover copy


Upper and Lower Great Lakes Podcast  please click the link

Below my painting of a tern and a map of the Great Lakes system.

White tail fawn

June 1, 2016


white tail fawn


Pacific Salmon in Great Lakes  Here is an interesting link about changes in the Great Lakes fishes.

For more information, The Dynamic Great Lakes shows how many changes happen and continue to happen in the Great Lakes.  Available at Amazon.com, bn.com and many fine bookstores.

blueglDynamicGreatLakes-Independent_FullCover copy


The Dynamic Great Lakes   Click the link

 

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