Friday, August 28, 2015

In the Key of Green

U-M music student Morgan Wynne talks about her experiences at Matthaei-Nichols as the social media and exhibits intern.  

I can’t tell you how nervous I was for the first day of work.

On May 4, I put on a new skirt and riding boots (it was still relatively chilly, people), tucked in my new, soft, and still pill-free logo t-shirt and headed off to Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I parked my car up in the overflow lot at 6:57 AM (33 minutes early) wondering which door to head into as I carefully put on my deep pink lipstick. Meandering down the hill, I followed some staff and interns at a safe distance. About a half hour later I walked into room 125, grabbed a bagel from the selection of munchies provided by Matthaei as welcome treats, and sat down quietly in a corner. Here I was: not knowing anyone. But it seemed that everyone knew each other! After a few introductions, we toured the grounds. We discussed the various gardens and my musician brain did the best it could to pick up on all the different invasives, native plants, and science jokes bouncing around.

This summer I worked 50/50 as the social media intern and the exhibits research intern. Why’d I take this position? I love social media. I think it is fascinating. People argue that social media separates people, makes us zombies. But I think that when it is used correctly, social media brings us all together. Today we can share information incredibly quickly and make connections with a single tap. My challenge this summer was to use social media as a way to bring people together to enjoy nature. To put their phones away, except for maybe a few selfies (next time you post, remember to use #umichNATURE).

I expected to work mostly alone, not knowing anybody anyway. But I discovered that there’s more music and friendship here than one might think. Over the course of the summer, I met some fascinating people with even more intriguing stories to tell. For example, did you know that parts of the agave that bloomed last year are being used to make musical instruments? Sections of the stalk are currently being fashioned into flutes thanks to professor Michael Gould at the U-M School of Music and a San Francisco-based Japanese flute maker. Ryan Gates, a local musician, is drying another section of the agave stalk to make into a didgeridoo. He even had plans to propose to his fiancĂ©e at Matthaei while the agave was in bloom!

Local musician Ryan Gates inspects a portion of the
agave stalk he hopes to use to make a didgeridoo.
There’s drama here, too, of the theater kind. Shakespeare in the Arb is a hugely popular event we hold each June that seamlessly combines nature with theater. This summer, Shakespeare in the Arb celebrated its 15th-year anniversary with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hundreds of people visit the Arb every summer to enjoy this show in its unique setting.

A scene from the summer 2015 Shakespeare in the Arb
production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
It goes beyond music and theater at the Arb and Gardens. Nature has been the inspiration for countless works of art: from U-M School of Music, Theatre, and Dance professor Jessica Fogel’s dance performances promoting environmental stewardship, to the U-M and Washtenaw Community College art classes that visit the Conservatory to sketch. Nature helps humans to express themselves through art, dance, music, written and spoken word, yoga, meditation, and more.

The friends I’ve made here this summer are some I will never forget. They’re brilliant people with great minds and kind hearts. They graciously let me stick my camera into their faces on countless occasions while asking them every little detail about what they were doing. They’ve taught me so much without making me feel insecure about my lack of plant knowledge, too. When I accidentally pulled a milkweed thinking it was a weed while off on some tangent (oops), Erin, another intern, helped me replant it. Jacob, an intern as well, patiently taught me how to plant different kinds of seeds on the farm. Marissa, who worked this summer as the Gaffield Children’s Garden intern, was always a ray of sunshine when I was stuck inside on a particularly nice day editing photos. Jared’s calm, levelheaded demeanor was always an inspiration to me, as my emotions generally tend to control my actions. And I think everyone would agree that our volunteer coordinator Yousef Rabhi’s jokes and positive attitude were the best part of lunch everyday. I met so many people this summer that welcomed me into their lives and made me feel like I belonged at the Gardens and the Arb, even though, as a U-M music student, I typically spend my day in a practice room poring over dots and dashes on a piece of paper.

A soecial program of yoga offered in the Arb in July.
To the numbers: this summer, we gained 263 Instagram followers, 141 Twitter followers, and 1,010 Facebook likes; well over a thousand more people brought back to nature through the use of technology. In between posting on our social media sites I spent time researching the upcoming winter exhibit about how plants contribute to—even change—our lives. 

A summer sunrise captured by the author on her morning walk
into work from the field lot at Matthaei.

Though I was usually kept busy inside documenting the happenings here and helping to plan the exhibit and talk about ways we could use social media to promote it, the best part of my day was always enjoying the walk from my car at sunrise. 

(All photos by Morgan Wynne.)

Morgan Wynne, from Midland, Michigan, is a senior at the University of Michigan studying music theory and music performance in horn. Morgan is working as an intern in the marketing and education departments.

Morgan Wynne

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Training Tomorrow’s Scientists to Think

By Richard Bryant

Developing students’ critical thinking skills. That was the goal of this summer’s Michigan Math and Science Scholars coursework at Matthaei-Nichols, says intern Richard Bryant, who helped teach one of the courses.

Each summer, the University of Michigan runs a program called Michigan Math and Science Scholars (MMSS) in which high school students from all over the world are selected on a competitive basis to study at the U-M. The two weeks of classes are conducted by a university faculty member, a graduate instructor, and an undergraduate instructor. Because the students live in an on-campus dormitory during their stay, they get to experience something that closely resembles what it’s like to attend a public university. At Matthaei-Nichols each summer, Curator David Michener teaches the class Life, Death & Change: Landscapes & Human Impact. I was fortunate to be the graduate instructor for the course this summer.

Five of the ten class days were held at Matthaei Botanical Gardens; the other five at Nichols Arboretum. On a typical day students are presented with a science puzzle to solve. For example, how do you determine in a plant population which species are likely to be native and which invasive? How can one assess whether the trees in a forest fall in random directions? Is there an association between soil properties such as color and pH, and the vegetation supported by that soil? How much water does a tree transpire on a hot summer day and what impact does this have on the ecosystem?

David Michener, right, conducts a Michigan Math &
Science Scholars class this summer
Every day we tackled questions like these, with an emphasis on training students to think critically. We asked the students, for example, what they would even begin to measure in order to make an educated guess about whether a plant was invasive.  They started to see variation in amount of leaf damage -- they inferred shortly thereafter that the leaves of invasive exotic plants tend to have a relatively smaller amount of damage.   

They figured out that invasive plants are less common food sources for our native insects and fungi.  In another challenge, students were asked to calculate how much water a tree transpires on a hot summer day. Before they could figure that out they needed to estimate the number of leaves on an entire tree. Actually counting this would take days. So how can one estimate this number as precisely and as quickly as possible?

This was my third summer helping to conduct and teach the MMSS class, but my first as a graduate instructor. Because of my background and current coursework in statistics I led several discussions about data that students may have collected that day. Curator David Michener stressed throughout the class the importance of working with a statistician while conducting field work, and how ubiquitous the field of statistics is across almost all scientific disciplines. I led a discussion one afternoon about the direction of tree fall in Radrick Forest, as well as which direction the trees are leaning. Once the data are collected, how do statisticians look at it?  They would need to state their hypotheses, decide what kind of test is most appropriate, check that the conditions for that test are met, and interpret their results.  Our conclusion was that, indeed, the tree falls are most definitely not falling or leaning in random directions.

Richard Bryant (center, black shirt) with intern
Joel Klann (white shirt), conducts an outdoor segment of the
Michigan Math & Science Scholars class.
My proudest moment in class came when I asked students to estimate the number of leaves on various trees at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.  I was pretty sure I caught some distinct boredom vibes wafting through the air.  After about ten minutes, some of the students were yawning, socializing and distracted by electronic devices.  I overheard one student asking another why we cared so much about how many leaves are on a tree, and then taking so long to answer that question.  I initiated an impromptu spiel about how questions like these arise all the time in the university setting and in interviews with prospective employers. Consider that professors and interviewers might care less about what you know and more about how you think about what it is you don’t know. This notion also extends to an academic degree. The degree may demonstrate knowledge of a particular field, but far more importantly, it ought to display an ability to think and to solve challenging problems. When I put it that way I perceived an attitude shift no less than an hour later, where the students approached the questions of the day with significantly greater attention and intrigue.

Helping to train students who could be tomorrow’s environmental scientists was a joy and a privilege. Using the two Matthaei-Nichols sites to train students to think was thrilling. I’ve worked at these two sites for close to four years, but it is incredibly refreshing to see them through the eyes of high school students. It’s gratifying for me to see Matthaei-Nichols being used to connect and engage future students in ways they may never forget. Immersed in a natural setting, the students discovered myriad ecological principles—principles that govern sites throughout the natural world. In essence, Matthaei-Nichols laid out a framework for how these students will progress as they move into future chapters of their lives.

Richard Bryant
Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working as an intern in plant records and garden plans.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Diverse Mint Family a Boon to Kitchens and Cultures around the World

By Claire Roos

Horticulture intern Claire Roos discovers the surprising diversity of the widely cultivated Lamiaceae, or mint, family

Whenever I find myself weeding in a garden my thoughts tend to wander from the absurdly mundane to the dramatically profound. It was during one of these moments, while I was pulling out every curmudgeonly weed I could find in the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden at Matthaei, that an interesting observation occurred to me. 

As I perused the culinary beds, it struck me that although basil (genus Ocimum) and mint (genus Mentha) have drastically different flavors, they belong to the same family, the Lamiaceae family. The spark had then been lit, and I promptly set out on an investigation. I soon discovered that not only were basil and mint in the same family, but many common herbs belonged to the Lamiaceae family as well, including sage (genus Salvia), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgarus), marjoram/oregano (Origanum majorana), savory (genus Satureja), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), bergamot/beebalm (genus Monarda), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). How could it be that a single plant family is responsible for such domination in human culinary creations? At this point, I began my research on the mystery and magic of Lamiaceae.

The Lamiaceae family, commonly referred to as the mint or deadnettle family, is a group of related flowering plants characterized by its opposite leaves, square stems, and hypogynous (growing on the undersurface of leaves) flowers. Members of this family are known for their strong aromatic qualities. That being said, their aroma is not the only trait that makes these plants stand out; they also exhibit remarkable morphological diversity with species ranging from ephemeral herbs, to shrubs, to long-lived trees. It is therefore unsurprising that Lamiaceae species are cultivated by humans not only for their essential oils, but also for their seeds (Salvia hispanica, commonly called chia), high quality lumber (Tectona grandis, the teak tree), and tubers (Plectranthus rotundifolius, the Chinese potato).

Chinese potato (Plectranthus rotundifolius) is a member
of Lamiaceae, as is. . . 

teak (Tectona grandis).

So, how did Lamiaceae species end up being so popular and widely cultivated by humans? While I was unable to find a specific answer, I think I’ve been able to piece together some major factors for their success. To start, it turns out that Lamiaceae is presently the sixth largest angiosperm family in the world (with more than 7,200 species total), growing in all continents except Antarctica. Gathering from what I remember from Intro to Biology, a phylum’s success is generally contingent on the degree of diversity of the species that are classified under said phylum. We can therefore make the assumption that even before human use of the plants, the high diversity of species in the Lamiaceae family is a result of a particularly vigorous genetic code. This combination of genetic diversity and widespread distribution meant that humans already had a lot to work with when they started selectively breeding plants for agricultural cultivation, allowing for a wide array of cultivars to be produced by all different cultures worldwide.

Furthermore, while this may be obvious enough, when cooks use herbs to spice up their cooking, they look for plants that are particularly aromatic. As I mentioned previously, a common characteristic of the Lamiaceae family is its strong essential oils, which are perfect for adding flavor. In addition to that, the strong odors associated with Lamiaceae also form terpenes, compounds that seem to be effective in suppressing the growth and germination of surrounding plants. Talk about a competitive advantage! And considering Lamiaceae’s easily identifiable characteristics, I would guess that after having successfully consumed one member of the Lamiaceae family, our ancestors were more likely to continue experimenting with eating plants that looked similar to the ones they already had proven safe. To top it off, Lamiaceae species are relatively easy to propagate by cuttings and seed, facilitating the process of selective breeding. The combined factors of having an already diverse wild gene pool, strong essential oils, an impressive vitality, and ease of propagation argue for Lamiaceae’s lasting presence in human culinary culture.

Claire Roos

Claire Roos, from Ann Arbor, is entering her senior year majoring in Program in the Environment and Spanish. Claire is working as a horticulture intern this summer.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Digital Place for Every Plant

By Richard Bryant

Summer intern and statistics grad student Richard Bryant drills down into the details of the plant databases at Matthaei-Nichols. His efforts—for example on the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden website—have already made the search experience better for students, researchers, and visitors seeking plant information.

Let’s say you’re interested in a specific type of black-eyed susan you’ve seen at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Through a Google search, you find its official, botanical name -- Rudbeckia hirta. Maybe you’re with a design team that thinks one of these beautiful sunflowers would look great overlooking the amazing Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. Or perhaps you’re a volunteer who wants to know the natural history of this particular plant. So you want to go into the field and find it. The first thing you do is visit the Plant Finder on the Matthaei-Nichols website, where you discover that one of these plants lives in “Bioswale.” However, this doesn’t give you much information. First of all, there are multiple bioswales! Which one is this plant in? Furthermore, the bioswales are relatively large. It would take you a frustratingly long time to go to multiple bioswales, sift through plant labels (if it even has one), and find this plant.

These black-eyed susans are beautiful!  Where are they?!
One of the projects I’ve been working on with the staff at Matthaei-Nichol this summer is a logical system that breaks large zones such as the Bioswales into smaller, digital and physical “Places.” Each “Place” will have global positioning system (GPS) coordinates. That way, one can look up the place that a plant lives in, which makes finding that plant significantly easier. Instead of having as many as 200 Bioswale plants to sift through to find Rudbeckia hirta, anyone looking for this information will know that it’s in a much smaller “place” within the “Parking lot bioswale.” Now there are only 10 plants to look through! Suddenly, the task of finding this plant is significantly less daunting.

This specificity is particularly useful with respect to the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The garden, which opened on August 2, 2015, features over 100 plants that are or have traditionally been used to treat human disease. For example, let’s say a student visits Matthaei while doing medical research and needs to find Ephedra sinica, a plant used for treating respiratory conditions. But the student lacks knowledge of many plants in general and doesn’t have more than a few minutes to find Ephedra sinica. But because the Medicinal Garden is organized online into the biological systems the plants are used to treat—a respiratory place, an ophthalmology place, a women’s health place, etc.—this makes for a very well organized garden.

To arrive at my system of organization, I meet with our curator and I look at each garden in isolation and not in relation to any other garden on our properties.  For purposes of illustration let’s look at the Great Lakes Garden. A first point of investigation is determining whether staff members have already created some kind of organizing system for this garden. A search of Matthaei-Nichols’ shared network reveals a highly detailed plant list. As it turns out, a Natural Areas team had already broken the Great Lakes Garden into 31 different components, and then identified which plants were in each garden already. This made my job very easy. But what about something like the Perennial Garden? Staff members installing this garden years ago may not have thought about how one “deconstructs” the information about this garden. Thus thinking about the perennial garden for my project in terms of “Places” involves sitting down with horticulturists, their interns, and the curator who oversees the entire record system, and then asking the question: “What is the most logical way of dividing this garden into distinct, useful components?”

Naturally, this project is not always straightforward. People think of gardens in different ways. A horticulturist may look at the Bonsai Garden and see it as, for example, six distinct beds.  But a student might see the very same garden as two, or three beds.  So each garden must be broken down in a logical fashion that can be agreed upon by all. A field team must eventually go through each place and verify which plants are in it, yet this is arduous when there are so many places to consider. That said, there is a clear end goal which benefits all: a record system that allows anyone, with great precision, to find out exactly where in Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum a specific plant lives.

Richard Bryant

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working summer 2015 as an intern in plant records and garden plans.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Students Connect Mott Hospital Patients with Nature, Building a Bridge to Healing

A volunteer program created and run by students brings young hospital patients and their families outdoors and demonstrates the rejuvenating power of nature.

By Rebecca Liebschutz and Elise Matatall

Matthaei-Nichols student interns and U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital staff put their heads together last year to connect kids at Mott with nature at nearby Nichols Arboretum. The program, called Wild About Nature, was created by student interns with the help of the children’s education department at Matthaei-Nichols. Wild About Nature launched in 2014 and has been running monthly programs for siblings of families at the hospital since January of 2015. As a way to take advantage of the plants blooming this summer, we recently started offering weekday guided hikes, in which Wild About Nature volunteers walk with the families through the Arb and discuss the plants and animals that surround them.

Julie Piazza, the Project Manager of Child & Family Life at Mott and a key supporter of Wild About Nature, discussed the benefits of getting people in the hospital out in nature. “It’s a distraction from the hospital environment,” Piazza explains, “because it allows the families to be out in nature, which provides an element of comfort and a sense of calm. Nature itself softens the hospital environment,” she continues, and creates “a bridge to healing.” Nature lovers have been claiming this for years but there is growing evidence that interacting with nature does indeed reduce stress levels and can boost the immune system—an essential part of healing.

Patients often travel great distances to be seen by Mott’s world-class doctors, and they’re often fatigued, far from home, and worried about family. Exploring the Arb with trained volunteers enhances their experience as visitors to the hospital and to Ann Arbor. Says Piazza, “What we’re trying to embrace here at Mott is place-based education. You’re in the hospital, but you need to know what’s around you to heal. It’s important to know the hospital surroundings but also outside resources and the community that you are now a part of.” They’ll remember that experience forever, she adds, and if they find themselves in the hospital setting again they’ll say “‘wow, I get to come and see the Arb’ and they’ll know what’s outside their window a little bit more.”

Starting with a pilot program about insects in November 2014, Wild About Nature has since grown to include a faerie house-making activity, a hot-chocolate workshop, and a peony scavenger hunt, among others. Each program involves an outdoor adventure component as well as a craft, such as making peonies with pipe cleaners and tissue paper or “growing” a paper cacao tree. At this time, volunteers and hospital staff are focused on quality over quantity. The hospital environment is quite different from the Botanical Gardens (where Children’s Education runs programs with up to 100 kids at a time!) and the program staff and volunteers must focus on outreach and marketing to connect with patients who might not know about the program yet.

Students on Board in Large Numbers
Wild About Nature’s pilot year involved recruiting volunteers to help lead programs and engage children and families at Mott. Student interest was overwhelming and the volunteer team is now composed of 15 University of Michigan college students. Volunteer Alex Meilhac says, “I got involved because I was looking for a non-traditional way to volunteer and make a difference in our community. What I love about Wild About Nature is that it strives to help young patients and their families to take a break from being in the hospital and enjoy the soothing effects of nature. The most rewarding part is knowing that we are doing something new, something that has never been done before at Mott Hospital and that has the potential to impact the recovery of patients who need an avenue of escape from the stress of being in a clinical setting.”

Volunteers and Mott staff have worked to design programs that are more flexible and can be adapted to a range of ages and abilities while adjusting to the fluid nature of the Family Center, in which families come and go continuously. This open and flexible mindset has enabled more children to get involved during the program period and to feel engaged. According to Wild About Nature volunteer Alex Kolenda, “It is super great getting to know the kids and teaching them a thing or two about nature. At the same time, I love being able to learn so much about nature myself! I enjoy volunteering for the program because I feel like I am learning so much—about both ecology and the environment these kids experience while in the hospital.” The volunteers’ devotion has allowed the emergence of weekday hikes, a more informal way of enjoying the Arboretum and knowing what one is seeing throughout.

In addition to providing weekday hikes for children and their families, Wild About Nature also offers weekly hikes for postpartum women from the Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital (which is combined with Mott). According to Piazza, the hikes fulfilled a need that had been there all along. “Mothers had wanted this before and were looking for something like this. [It’s] almost like permission to take a break.”

Moving forward, there is much potential for a program like this in the adult hospital, since everyone can heal and find respite in nature, not just women and children. Says Piazza, “We need to make this happen in the adult hospital … within the next year, this will only grow! I feel like there are ways we can make this happen and help people enjoy this resource.” Volunteer Alex Kolenda feels similarly, saying “as time goes on, the program will have more and more of a [positive] reputation at the hospital and will therefore have more and more participation. I can see more university students wanting to get involved, too.”

Within the next few years, Wild About Nature hopes to continue its programming and spread awareness throughout the hospital and greater community about the resources offered by the neighboring Nichols Arboretum. To learn more about Wild About Nature, please write

Rebecca Liebschutz, from Albany, N.Y., graduated from U-M this May with degrees in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics and Program in the Environment. She is interested in working in sustainable development and agriculture policy. Rebecca is working as a children’s programs intern funded by the Ann Arbor Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association.

Elise Matatall, originally from Denver, CO, is a graduate student in the U-M School of Social Work. She has been fortunate to participate in a specialized child welfare scholarship program at U-M. Her work-study position with children's education and the Wild About Nature project have been immensely helpful in informing her practice as a child and family therapist, where she often incorporates the healing power of nature. 

Rebecca Liebschutz (left) and Elise Matatall
in front of Willow Pond at Matthaei.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Volunteers in Focus: Uncle Ron, Jokey Jokemaster

Living is easy; comedy is hard. That's a lesson summer 2015 Volunteer Services Intern Joel Klann learned after attending long-time volunteer Ron Heames's 7th Annual Bad Joke Fest---a light-hearted break in the otherwise busy schedules of Matthaei-Nichols' interns and volunteers. 

15,000. That’s the number of hours a typical full-time worker logs in a little over 7 years. It’s also the number of hours Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum anticipates volunteers to dedicate by year's end. Nearly 400 permanent and close to 1,200 short-term volunteers equate to the labor of over 7 full-time employees. With Matthaei-Nichols permanent staff of just 29, the work that volunteers do is critical to the success of the organization, allowing us to provide unique community resources for conserving, restoring, and celebrating the environment. Volunteers have fun doing valuable work, and come with an enthusiasm and an appreciation for the natural world that manifests effortlessly.

I can’t say enough good things about those who freely contribute their time to any worthy cause, but as the Volunteer Services Intern at Matthaei-Nichols this summer, I can say that being able to interact with and help out many wonderful people who seek to be involved with our organization has been quite a treat.

One of many whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with is Ron Heames. Ron is one of the most senior veterans on our team, contributing countless hours to the organization during his 15 years here. When I ask him what keeps him coming back after so long, he says it’s mainly the work and the people.

Ron is a retiree from Ford, where he worked in purchasing for many years before linking up with the horticulture department at Matthaei-Nichols. When he's not busy doing his favorite activity of planting, or helping us to maintain displays of natural beauty in other ways, he enjoys long-distance running and the outdoors. For Ron, though, one thing is constant: he is always telling jokes.

Recently we were fortunate to have “Uncle Ron,” as he is known, present us with his 7th annual “Bad Joke Fest.”

Volunteers, staff, and interns hang on Ron Heames's
(center left, in red shirt) every word
A flyer for this event bearing the botanically-minded pun of a headline, “It’s That Thyme Again” is posted to a window at Ron’s back as the interns and staff wait for the show to begin. The comic tension amuses all in the room, with the first timers unsure of what they're about to witness, and past attendees anticipating the possibilities.

A flyer announces Ron Heames's 7th Annual Bad Joke Fest
As the last staff members shuffle into their seats, Ron begins to rattle off pun after pun, eliciting some laughs, some half-laughs, and his personal favorite, groans. The more a joke disappoints, the better. The imitation of the sound of two drums and a cymbal follows the especially bad ones. It’s a rather anticlimactic event—not having much to do with everyday volunteer activities—and yet that’s what makes it one of the best days of the summer internship. Ron does it every year, and he insists it gets better each time, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I think it might mean, “It’s so bad, it’s good!”

A few choice Ron Heames pearls of laughter:

        There were two peanuts walking down the street. One was a salted.

        A bear walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “What'll it be?” “A . . . beer please.” 
“Why the huge pause?” said the bartender. “I dunno,” said the bear. I've had ‘em since I was a kid.”
        The invisible man and the invisible woman make a great couple, but their kids aren’t much to look at.
        A teddy bear walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Can I get you anything?” The teddy bear replies, “No thanks, I'm stuffed.”

Interns and staff alike are graced by Ron’s presence and his commitment to the organization. Even though his jokes may slowly be killing us, it is because of him and the hundreds of regulars and thousands of part-time volunteers that we are able to sustain our vitality and do what we do for the community at large. And for that we are thankful.

Joel Klann, from Southwest Detroit, Michigan, is a senior studying political science. Joel is working this summer as the Volunteer Services intern. He is especially interested in social welfare and civil rights issues.

Joel Klann


Monday, July 20, 2015

Student Intern Sharpens Birding Skills at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Student summer intern Alex Peters is working on getting the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei ready for its opening on August 2. She’s also a recent convert to the joys of birding. Here, Alex shares her bird discoveries at Matthaei.

Last fall I took an ornithology class at the University of Michigan and part of the lab assignment was to keep a bird-watching journal. This entailed going on birding outings, recording the species I saw and any observations, and inputting my data into (a site where birders upload their checklists; useful for other birders and for conservation). I really love the problem solving associated with successfully identifying a bird and the sense of accomplishment when you identify a bird you have never recorded before. I have been birding in the Midwest since taking that class. One highlight so far has been going up to the Upper Peninsula with the U-M Ornithology Club to see snowy owls and shrikes.

Closer to home, Matthaei Botanical Gardens is a great place to spot a large variety of birds. The Botanical Gardens’ wooded trails and its proximity to Fleming Creek make for good habitat for many bird species. I’ve compiled a list of eleven species I have seen while working as an intern in the horticulture department, along with a map of where they were spotted. No doubt there are many more to see here at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum!

Note: The IUCN status included with each bird is a measure of conservation status and guides conservation efforts around the world. Each species is measured on a scale (starting from the lowest risk of extinction): least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, and extinct. For more information about the IUCN see

1. Eastern bluebird – these colorful birds are always a treat to spot. They happily nest in some of the nest boxes in the Gaffield Children’s Garden and I tend to see them in the big cottonwoods up there. Hopefully they take advantage of the native bird garden as a source of nesting material and food. Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open grassland with surrounding trees. Diet: mainly insects with supplemental fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: Least concern, increasing as more people install nest boxes.

© Beth Donald

2. Mourning dove – these common birds are probably best known for their lilting call. Unfortunately this summer I have known them as the birds that most often get trapped in the greenhouses and conservatory. Birds tend to fly in through open doors and then get confused by the glass walls and we need to come to their rescue by opening vents in the roof or even resorting to catching them with nets. This summer I have released mourning doves on at least four different occasions. Hopefully they will have learned by now! 
Size: slightly smaller than a pigeon. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: Seeds, foraged on the ground. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: Least concern.

© Ken Schneider

3. Killdeer – if you follow our Facebook page, then you have most likely seen some photos of killdeers and their nests. Killdeers nest on the ground and have a pretty amazing adaptation to ward off predators. Not only do they have a very piercing warning call, they will lure predators away from their nest or chicks by faking a broken wing. When the predator (humans included!) is far away from the nest, the adult bird will end its performance and fly away. 
Size: same as American Robin but with longer wings. Habitat: open grassland and shores. Diet: mainly invertebrates such as worms, snails, beetles, and larvae. Found in MI: during the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Kevin Bolton

4. Chipping sparrow – these small birds, unlike the mourning doves, have figured out the intricacies of the greenhouses. They come and go as they please and every year they nest in a scented geranium in one of the staff greenhouses. The second brood of chicks has recently started to fledge (when they start to leave the nest for the first time). It’s great to watch the parents feed the juveniles and teach them how to fly down the work corridor (photo below). 
Size: small sparrow, same size as a chickadee. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: seeds, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Kevin Carver

Photo: Carmen Leskoviansky

5. Eastern kingbird – this is a very striking bird that is usually seen perching on fence posts or trees in fields. There they wait until they spot their prey—flying insects—and swoop down to catch them midair. I spotted this bird sitting on the wire fence surrounding the Campus Farm. 
Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open fields and near rivers. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Christopher L. Wood

6. Barn swallow – I get to see these little guys every day as I walk into work. They like to hang out by the parking lot and twitter as they swoop through the sky. Like the Eastern kingbird, these birds catch insects in the air and are avid flyers. One barn swallow likes to fly into the horticulture offices and hang out in the rafters. Every year these birds try to build nests in and around the dump truck. Size: smaller than a bluebird. Habitat: open areas and towns. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Eddie Y.

7. Rose-breasted grosbeak – the males of this species are a beautiful sight to see in the trees and underbrush of our natural areas. They have very large beaks that they use to crack open nuts and seeds. These birds will visit feeders and can be found in second growth deciduous forests. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin but larger than a House Finch. Habitat: deciduous forest. Diet: fruit, seed, insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Gary Tyson

8. Gray catbird – one of my personal favorites. These guys look sharp and have a call that is likened to a cat or a baby crying. I always love to hear their ridiculous noises, but they also mimic other bird songs and string them together to make their own unique melodies. 
Size: similar to an American Robin. Habitat: disturbed forests and dense thickets. Diet: insects and fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© robinsegg

9. Cedar waxwing – These beautiful, masked birds almost look like they were painted. While I was working one weekend recently my fellow intern Chad found a baby cedar waxwing (pictured below) near the parking lot. Because it was an older fledgling with feathers and open eyes, we left it on the ground after moving it into the shade. Sure enough, after a few minutes the parents came swooping down to feed their offspring. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin, similar to a bluebird. Habitat: around fruiting trees, open woodlands, along streams. Diet: fruit, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern.

© Ben Thomas/GBBC

Photo: Alex Peters

10. Ruby-throated hummingbird – the only species of hummingbird that breeds in Michigan. They can be found zooming through the ornamental gardens and if you are lucky you can see them perch on branches or wire fences. I most often see them in the Gateway Garden at Matthaei sampling the annual flowers. These birds are quite territorial and can be seen chasing other hummingbirds or different bird species away. 
Size: very small; 3-4 inches. Habitat: deciduous forests and open areas. Diet: nectar and insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Michael Hogan

© Michael J. Andersen

11. Bald eagle – I did not realize how common it is to see bald eagles soaring in the skies in Michigan. Fellow intern Gus and I were lucky to spot a juvenile bald eagle up at the Campus Farm. It had landed on a research bug box and dove down to the ground. I didn’t see it catch anything so maybe it was still learning. 
Size: one of the largest birds in North America (length: 2-3 feet; wingspan: up to 80  inches). Habitat: forests near large bodies of water. Diet: mainly fish supplemented with small birds, amphibians, and mammals. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern, formerly endangered. 

Alex Peters
For more information about these birds go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website

Photos by Alex Peters, Carmen Leskoviansky, and also gathered from