- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

EMPIRE, Mich. (AP) - Bill Scharf sees the sun rise from the woods.

He rises at 5 a.m. to drive the Chippewa Run Natural Area in Empire, where he hangs mist nets to collect and study birds visiting a nearby pond, the Traverse City Record-Eagle (https://bit.ly/1YiaK9u ) reported.

Scharf, a Lake Superior State University biology professor, tracks the airborne creatures and the critters that hitch rides on their skin: ticks.

“It’s sort of like stamp collecting except I collect ticks,” he said.

Scharf made a discovery on May 7, 2015 - Ixodes brunneus, a species of tick typically found in the southern United States, inside the ear of a Lincoln’s sparrow. Friends in Vicksburg found one, too. They published their observations in “The Great Lakes Entomologist” last year.

It was the first time the species was reported in Michigan, the scientists said.

Scharf isn’t simply looking for fresh ticks when he combs back a sparrow’s feathers to inspect its ears for ticks. He measures, bands and inspects birds to study species’ survival rates, habitat range and frequent stopover spots.

Studying the creatures attached to them is a bonus that revealed changes in the ecosystem that stem from a warming climate, Scharf said. He has never seen so many ticks on birds.

“We’re finding more ticks per bird than we used to,” he said. “Ticks are able to live much farther north now than they used to.”

Ticks feed on host animals, such as birds, mice, deer and humans said Jennifer Sidge, a veterinarian and Michigan State University graduate student studying Lyme disease at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The critters can use those host animals as transportation.

Ixodes brunneus doesn’t carry Lyme disease and doesn’t parasitize humans, but Scharf’s research shows a way Lyme-ridden ticks could spread the disease, Sidge said.

“We have birds that are traveling great distances, migrating from one end to the other end of the nation,” she said.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, transmitted to humans through infected black-legged ticks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease can cause fever, headaches, skin rashes and fatigue, and if left untreated can impact the joints, heart and nervous system.

The bacterium that causes Lyme disease and black-legged ticks have become increasingly common at Sleeping Bear since Sidge started tracking them a decade ago. There were no black-legged ticks or Lyme in 2007, she said.

A “hot spot” of Lyme in Van Buren County in the early 2000s spread to Sleeping Bear shortly after.

“The state of Michigan has a prime habitat for the tick to be able to survive,” Sidge said. “We have good temperatures, we have the soil, we have an abundance of small rodents, we have deer. We have everything for the tick and the bacterium to flourish.”

Earlier spring warming gives ticks more opportunity to reproduce, Sidge said. The bugs can survive cold winters under leaf litter.

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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