Northern Michigan University graduate discovers rare bird, fern
MARQUETTE — Sunday was an “epic day” for Ryne Rutherford the ornithologist and Ryne Rutherford the botanist, as he called himself on Facebook.
That was the day he found a rare plant — a New York fern — along with a loggerhead shrike, which is unusual for the region.
Rutherford and his wife, Jenny, both based in the Stonington Peninsula, run the company Biophilia LLC.
Rutherford, a Northern Michigan University graduate, is working in the western Upper Peninsula on a two-year project in the Ottawa National Forest, conducting surveys of rare plants before proposed timber sales.
So, that means getting out in the field a lot. In fact, he said he works every day, along with two other people working for his company.
Rutherford detailed his recent discoveries via email to The Mining Journal.
“While I’m out here, I also target rare birds, insects, herps, lichens etc., for the Forest Service since all that data is also pertinent to the project,” said Rutherford, who goes birding in the mornings or evenings before work.
That’s when he found the shrike.
The western U.P. is lacking in bird records in general, he said, so he tries to collect as much data on them as possible and report it to the U.S. Forest Service, plus he makes a report at eBird.org.
Rutherford pointed out that the loggerhead shrike is a rare breeding species in Michigan that has undergone significant declines.
“Basically, they like prairies and shrubby pastures, which have declined substantially with the rise of intensive industrial agriculture in the Midwest,” Rutherford said. “The site where I found it in the grasslands, near Ewen, is an excellent potential breeding site, which I will monitor throughout the summer to see if breeding is occurring.”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, called the species a “songbird with a raptor’s habits.” The bird scans the ground for prey from elevated perches, then dives into them. A loggerhead shrike also hunts by hovering in the area. The shrike then impales prey on sharp objects such as thorns and barbed wire, or tucks them into forks between branches.
Rutherford said one or two loggerhead shrikes show up in Michigan most years, but are never a guarantee. They are even rarer in the U.P.
He also discovered a new population of New York ferns, Thelypteris noveboracensis, in Gogebic County.
“This was indeed a significant discovery since it was found much further west than previously thought, which extends the known range of this species significantly further west than previously known,” Rutherford said.
He believes it’s important to monitor wildlife species.
“It’s not possible to make sound decisions about land use without knowing where rare species are occurring,” Rutherford said. “Things constantly change in nature and so it is important to continuously monitor existing populations.
“Choosing not to monitor nature and addressing the concerns could eventually doom us. After all, we are part of the natural environment that we live in, and subtle changes in nature may be the first signs of concern for humans.”
He acknowledged that some people have used computer models to predict where rare species will occur, but that has been shown to be unreliable.
“You need boots on the ground from experts,” Rutherford said. “Some of the areas we are working are remote and have never received a biological inventory. Thus, much awaits discovery.”
The first two weeks of work this season, he said, have turned up a new site for spruce grouse. Other notable finds are the West Virginia white butterfly, black-backed woodpecker, wood turtle and four-toed salamander.
Rare plant discoveries include the fragrant cliff fern and large toothwort.
“One other thing I’ve observed repeatedly is the die-off of sensitive foliose lichens on hardwood trees,” Rutherford said. “Although not typically monitored, lichens are our best environmental indicators, so I see some reason for concern.”
The smooth lungwort, which is more common in cooler, wetter climates farther east, is the main declining species, and the warmer, dryer climate period that has occurred over the last decade and is expected to continue might doom this species, Rutherford said.
“This would mean a potential range contraction in response to climate change, but more study is needed to confirm that,” he said.
Also being surveyed are large tracks of black ash swamp, which Rutherford noted will be “catastrophically impacted” from the emerald ash borer soon.
“We are likely the last team to survey these ecological communities before the ash die, which is quite sad,” he said. “They can be quite majestic and are very interesting biologically.”
Biophilia LLC, according to Rutherford, is the only local consulting firm that specializes in multi-taxa inventory and monitoring. The company works with government agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, private land conservancies, private landowners and wind energy companies.
Considering he works in off-the-beaten-path spots, certain challenges are inevitable.
“The early season ‘honeymoon period’ — for example, the mid-May period when the weather is nice before the mosquitoes — is now over,” Rutherford said. “They are so bad in places that I drink water right through the netting on my bug shirt.”
Whatever the significance of his recent discoveries, Rutherford garnered a lot of praise on Facebook from friends — many of whom are knowledgeable about wildlife — who wrote they were “awesome” and “great finds.”
However, there certainly are more species to be located in the state. In fact, one Facebook friend noted he needs to find Thelypteris simulata, considered the rarest fern in Michigan.
Who knows what the Biophilia team will discover popping up from the forest floor?
For more information, visit biophilianature.com.